Actions

Work Header

Sarrak: A SWTOR Story

Chapter Text

It is a pivotal time for the SITH EMPIRE. Having secured an uneasy truce with the GALACTIC REPUBLIC, the Empire now seeks allies among the neutral systems.

The foul planet HUTTA is the Empire's latest target, but its wealthy and corrupt crime lords refuse to take side in the cold war between Republic and Empire.

To tip the scales, Imperial Intelligence's latest shadowy operative has been dispatched to Hutta under command of the Empire's mysterious spymaster....

 

 

The starship appeared out of nowhere just a few million kilometers away from the target planet. Drifting unnoticed past the dozens of ships itching to land on the smuggler's moon Nar Shaddaa, the ship continued its course to the Hutt controlled planet, uncreatively named Hutta. A sickly shade of olive green permeated the clouds above the planet, indicating a toxic atmosphere only a Hutt could find comfortable. The oceans were a dull brown, suggesting a similar lethality in the water. The ship pushed past all of it and surprisingly found no resistance in the upper atmosphere, touching down safely in a semi-crowded spaceport landing zone not far from the settlement Jiguuna. Allowing for the rowdy crew of assorted drunks, gamblers, smugglers, and riff-raff to leave first, the final passenger of the taxi ship finally exited the craft. She waited until it took off mere moments later to check her personal tracking device.

The objective was near. Continuing through the spaceport, she saw two suspicious Gamorrean pig-men looking around wildly, keeping tight grips on their axes. They started coming her way, but she slipped into the crowd easily. She was still safe, still an unknown. The pig-men went right on past to confront a feisty bug-eyed Rodian. He went down quickly when one of the pig-men kneed him in the gut. She reminded herself there wasn't any time to watch the rowdy locals, and continued towards her assigned destination, the local cantina.

Proceeding to one of the back rooms, she quickly made sure nobody else was around, and started to tamper with a looped holorecording of a beautiful translucent Twi'lek dancer. With the right cross wiring and inputting into her portable device, she successfully uploaded the correct holofrequency of her contact. The dancing Twi'lek was replaced by the blue frizzy hologram of a stern looking older man wearing a grey Imperial Intelligence officer's uniform. His feet were firmly planted on the ground and his arms were behind his back. He was in a position of authority, ready to give orders.

"Secure transmission established. This is Keeper. We may speak freely, agent; prepare to receive your orders," the hologram said.

"Agent Arierra Sarrak, reporting for duty. Ready to receive my mission," the young woman replied.

"Yes, Agent Sarrak. You were chosen for this operation because of your exemplary performance and leadership skills displayed during your previous team-based missions on the capital world Dromund Kaas. Imperial Intelligence needs agents capable of working independently in the field. Now you apply your training to the real world.

"Nem'ro the Hutt and his organization run Jiguuna, and you're in town to convince Nem'ro to supply the Empire." Keeper delivered the rundown swiftly, his grimace never fading once. Apparently this Nem'ro was giving the Empire a lot of trouble.

"Give me background. What are we working from?" Arierra asked. Better to know as much going into the mission as possible.

"Jiguuna is an industrial town, and Nem'ro runs most of the industry. The Hutt supplies weapons, drugs, and raw materials—but not to us. We believe Nem'ro has been reluctant to lose Republic customers by publicly siding with the Empire. It's time he overcame this reluctance. We need to know what Nem'ro and his advisors are thinking before we can act. I want you to obtain access to the Nem'ro clan's inner circle.

"You'll require a cover identity. One of our contacts—an alien named Jheeg—has prepared a background for you and will provide the details."

"It's as good as done," Arierra said with a short nod. She had been quite successful with subterfuge missions before, and her confidence was exuding from her, enough for Keeper to notice.

"Don't underestimate the Nem'ro clan. The galaxy has seen more effective gangsters, but rarely more sadistic ones," Keeper warned. "Jheeg will be waiting for you at a safehouse. Locate him, take what he offers, then report to me. Your combat training should see you through, but expect brutality and expect to be targeted. Jiguuna isn't friendly to strangers. Keeper out."

The hologram disappeared in a blink. She tampered with the base of the projector and unplugged her device. The dancing Twi'lek returned, as if Arierra had never been there. She turned and exited the room, slipping past drunks as she stepped out into the muggy open air of Hutta. The safehouse wasn't too far away, but there was some blaster fire in the street. Probably some gang members riled up. It didn't bother Arierra. She was a master of stealth, even given her almost white-as-snow blonde hair. She kept it clipped extremely short to keep it out of her face when looking through the scope of a blaster rifle, and to draw less attention. The last thing anyone wanted while working as an agent for Imperial Intelligence was attention.

She made it to the safehouse and found a hideous alien who could only have been her contact Jheeg. His head was horizontally elongated, with large round glassy eyes that had no pupils or irises at all, just shiny black reflective surfaces that made her shiver with unease.

"Wumba oomba juga las ta Jheeg," he grumbled.

What did he just say? Must be speaking some alien language, she thought.

"Why couldn't you just speak Basic and make this easier on me? Hold on," she said with an exasperated sigh. She fiddled with her portable device and turned on the universal translator. "Could you please repeat that, I didn't quite understand the first time."

"You. You are here softly, from the Empire. I am Jheeg. I am expecting you. I have your new identity," the translator said. "Do you know the Red Blade? Small-time pirate. Rich. Mysterious. No one knows true species. Gender. Color. I planted rumors, made Nem'ro think the Red Blade is coming to visit—enjoy Hutt palace, do business. You will be the Blade. No one will doubt you."

"This sounds too easy, Jheeg. What's the catch?" Arierra asked. Nothing was ever this smooth. The alien was hiding something. She could feel it in her gut.

"Ah, yes. Catch is unfortunate. I will explain. Real Blade brings tribute to friends; brings presents, bribes. Real Blade is far away now, exploring Outer Rim. Won't cause trouble. Many things Nem'ro wants, things Nem'ro likes. Once Nem'ro has gifts, all suspicions go away. You become pirate. You become Red Blade. I contacted Imperial handlers. As assured, yes? The call is arriving now."

An audio device on the nearby table activated, and Keeper's voice started talking.

"Jheeg, from this point forward operational security will be at a premium. You will not contact us from this terminal again."

"Yes. Leaving for your privacy. I will await contact," Jheeg whispered. He left the safehouse and another hologram popped up from the audio device so that she and Keeper could talk face-to-face, more or less. Thank goodness that was over. Any more of that insufferable alien and she would have put her head through a wall.

"Now that you have your cover identity, your next task is to access Nem'ro's inner circle. Present yourself to the Hutt as a fellow gangster—as this Red Blade—and offer him Jheeg's gifts. One of the gifts is implanted with a listening device, which we will use to monitor conversations within Nem'ro's palace," Keeper explained.

"Are we listening for something specific?" Arierra asked.

"At this juncture, our primary goal is to find weaknesses in Nem'ro's organization. Even if the Hutt won't join us, we might influence his lieutenants. Talk to Nem'ro and his men. Determine who we can turn and how we can sway them. We will be listening."

We will be listening. It was always like that, wasn't it? Always listening. Always being watched, always aware of just how many eyes and ears were out there. It was calming and terrifying all at once.

"In that case, I'd better watch my mouth," Arierra said with a smirk. It was half joke, half serious.

"Yes, be careful what you say—and lose the accent. When you're in the Hutt palace, you're no longer an Imperial. Contact me from the palace cantina once Nem'ro has his "presents". Keeper out."

It was a short walk to the palace, but the humidity made it feel longer. As soon as she entered the palace a large man stepped in her path, blocking her from moving forward. He pressed a button on his in-ear commlink.

"This is Karrels. Tell the throne room that the Blade's arrived." Karrels gestured her to follow him further into the palace. He laid down the rules as they walked to the throne room. "When Nem'ro shows, stay at least five meters back and don't come up unless you're called. One wrong move and you're a pile of ash," he warned.

"You worried I'm going to cause trouble?" Arierra said in a flawless Republic backwater planet accent.

"Just going over the rules. You've got a reputation, and we don't want any problems."

They stepped through a doorway into the throne room and he was the first thing she saw. He was hard to miss. A gigantic beige slug with short grubby arms and two bulging eyes laid on a comfortable couch of royal purple and gold adornments. She could smell his rancid stench all the way from the back of the room. He waved them forward and they proceeded to present themselves.

Karrels spoke first. "Allow me to present Nem'ro the Hutt—the illustrious crime king of Jiguuna." Karrels gave a small bow and backed away. Arierra pulled out her translator; Hutts never bothered to speak Basic. It was beneath them.

"So, the Red Blade finally comes to visit the house of Nem'ro. Great honor comes to the both of us. I did not expect you to be so...soft, however. Very few pirates possess charms like yours. Hahaha!" Every word that came out of its hideously wide mouth made her want to throw up, but she held it in. She had to be professional, no matter how much she hated being near these putrid slime balls. "Now, let us see if the legends of the mighty Red Blade's generosity are true. What have you brought me and my clan?"

Looking around the room, it was clear that like all Hutts, Nem'ro was as greedy as he was ugly. The room was filled so many expensive decorations it was like a tornado came through a Corellian art gallery and settled down in Nem'ro's palace. It would be in her best interest to embellish as much as possible to get on the Hutt's good side.

"Vast treasures, plundered from worlds in every sector in the galaxy—" She nearly choked while saying this next part, "—all for you, great and powerful Nem'ro."

"You talk big, little pirate, but your boasts do not interest me." Karrels went over to the table and inspected the gifts. His eyes lit up with glee.

Karrels stepped forward to inspect the treasures. "Not bad! Nem'ro—the idols here are real aurodium. The cloth looks like—"

"I see, Karrels. I see. Mmm..." The Hutt was silent for a few seconds and then nodded his flabby head in approval. "You are an impressive and beautiful creature, Blade. You may conduct your dealings on Hutta with my approval. Now, experience the luxuries of my palace. Enjoy my slaves, and wallow in opulence! Let me introduce you to my advisors. You have met Karrels Javis; any business you have you may discuss with him. And this is Toth'lazhen—"

A fierce-faced red Twi'lek man got up from a chair and approached Nem'ro.

"Nem'ro, we have little time for guests right now. Security reports that Fa'athra and his clan have struck at our shipments again."

"WHAT!?" Nem'ro's whole body shook with rage. He started screaming and ranting, and Arierra took several steps back. All the movement was making his odor get worse. Karrels led her out of the throne room.

"Looks like your audience with Nem'ro is over. You'll have to forgive the interruption. I've been working for that Hutt since he killed my gang when I was thirteen. Trust me, you can't talk to him when he's like this."

"Thanks for the introduction. I look forward to doing business with all of you," she said.

"No problem. And hey, you don't have to be all business. Get a drink, relax, make yourself at home while you're here." Arierra gave him a firm handshake and made her way to the backroom of the palace cantina. Once again tampering with the holoreciever device, she tapped into Keeper's frequency.

Keeper's likeness appeared and he looked pleased. "Well done, agent. The listening device is working perfectly, and Nem'ro can keep no more secrets from us. Imperial Intelligence has determined that Nem'ro's human lieutenant—Karrels Javis—is the weak link in his operation. You're going to twist the man until he serves us."

Arierra nodded in confirmation. "He won't be any trouble to manipulate," she said, back to her stiff and proper Imperial accent. Keeper continued.

"Unfortunately, Karrels is on the verge of disfavor with Nem'ro, while the Twi'lek lieutenant—Toth'lazhen, I believe—is Nem'ro's rising star. I want you to go to Karrels and offer your services as the Red Blade. Do whatever is necessary to bring Karrels glory in Nem'ro's eyes." There was a moment of silence and Keeper's usual stiffness was overtaken by a glimpse of nerves.

"One other thing, agent. This operation of ours has drawn the attention of a member of the Dark Council—Darth Jadus himself. The Council's authority is second only to that of the Emperor. It's a rare...honor...for an Intelligence operation to be overseen in this way."

Arierra sensed his unease and decided to push. "With all due respect, what does the Dark Council care about Hutta? This operation isn't exactly a threat to the Sith."

"I don't know why Lord Jadus is interested. Nor is it our concern. The Sith aren't obligated to share their reasons. Report back once you've rendered whatever aid Karrels requires. Keeper out."

Not even five paces from Karrels' back office, a Zabrak stepped out in front of her to block her path. A crown of horns adorned his bald head, and his face was covered in light tattoos of intricate design.

He's rather handsome for an alien, she thought while eyeing him up, trying to find any potential weaknesses if this was going to get violent.

"Don't be in such a hurry, Blade. Don't you remember me? Your old buddy, Dheno Rey? I don't think you looked this good when we met up on Hoth—or so girly. But you couldn't be an imposter. You know your old friend Dheno." He cocked his head slightly, his eyes running up and down her body, smirking to himself.

Cover is blown. There are always risks when going undercover, might as well play along, and get through this as quickly and quietly as possible.

"Of course, I remember you Dheno! How long's it been?" His smirk slowly faded.

"Little too long, it seems. Turns out we've got a problem. You see, you don't look like the Blade I know. The Blade who owes me credits. But...you say you're the Blade, my pretty lady friend, so I'll take you at your word and ask for my money. You understand?" She didn't like the look in his eye, but she had a few tricks up her sleeve. A lot of men could be easy to manipulate.

In her sweetest voice she could muster, she took one slow step towards Dheno and said "I thought we were close, Dheno. I thought you were my very, very close friend."

He looked intrigued. "Yeah, I can see that...But come on. I really do need the cash if I'm gonna keep your little secret."

Damn, he's not backing down.

Sometimes she hated what she had to do to keep her cover safe. She stepped towards him again, placing her hand gently on his shoulder, caressing him softly.

"Come on, you're a good guy. You'd take a girl's last few credits? Leave her broke and wanting?" She leaned in closer. He pushed her away.

"It's tempting...really tempting. But I'm not talking about settling a bar tab here. I'm talking big credits. Either you give me what you owe me, or I start telling Hutts that the Blade's still dodging asteroid fields in the Outer Rim."

He slowly reached for his blaster pistol, but Arierra cut him off before he could grab it. She blocked him and he kicked back at her. They scuffled for a few seconds and suddenly she was overwhelmed with awareness.

The fight slowed down and she sensed terrible danger. She saw Dheno stabbing outward with a hidden knife, coming right for her gut. She reached out to try to redirect his arm but he simply stopped thrusting. It was like he had hit a solid invisible wall. The knife wouldn't go further.

She pushed with all her might against him and suddenly he went flying backwards, all the way down the hallway, smacking into the far back wall. It all happened so fast, there was barely time to register what had happened. Dheno was unconscious on the floor.

Did I just...?

Eyes wide with disbelief, her suspicions were confirmed when she felt a presence materialize behind her.

She slowly turned around to see a tall figure, hidden under a thick black hooded cloak. His face was shadowed, hidden well enough that the only features she could make out were the pointy tip of a chalk-white beard and his eyes.

Those eyes. Those pale, piercing, ghostly white eyes. Not the yellow and red corruption normally associated with a master of the dark side of the Force. These eyes indicated something much, much worse.

She managed to tear her gaze away from those eyes and look downward to see the glint of metal in his grip. Fast as lightning, a meter-long plasma beam protruded from the metallic hilt, lighting up the dim hallway in a splash of crimson light. The Sith raised his lightsaber up to her, the end of the red blade barely a centimeter away from the tip of her nose.

"We have much to discuss, Agent Sarrak," he said in a cold, commanding voice. He lowered the red blade down to his side.

She let out a frustrated sigh, never imagining she'd address this Lord of the Sith, member of the Dark Council, the universally feared and reviled Darth Phantos, ever again in her life.

"I imagine we do...father."

Chapter Text

Born to two Force users, Darth Phantos and the Jedi Padawan Ashara Zavros, Arierra had been an anomaly. She was born with light blonde hair. In addition, Phantos could sense no connection to the Force inside his daughter.

Neither Phantos nor his wife had blonde hair.

Both Phantos and Ashara were Force users.

Any other Sith would have killed his wife in a rage for the insult of infidelity, but Phantos was cold and calculating. Instead of hatred, Phantos simply ignored his wife, and left her to raise Arierra mostly on her own. Phantos was busy with his scheming to grab a seat on the Dark Council, and Ashara was happy enough with the arrangement if it meant seeing less of her husband.

Ashara's daughter was not a Force user, but Ashara could teach her what she knew, limited as it was. They trained together in secret, Ashara imparting the philosophies of the Jedi, practicing meditation, and Arierra's favorite activity: lightsaber forms. Arierra of course never touched a lightsaber, only using a wooden practice blade.

Though she sought the affection of her father, as she reached adolescence, she grew to understand his level of involvement in her life. Minimal contact with his non-Force-attuned bastard child would keep Phantos' embarrassment in the back burner of his peer's minds and would easily keep Arierra's training a secret. This embarrassment lessened over the years as Arierra proved herself quite capable as an officer of the Imperial military when she reached adulthood. After only a year of service, she was quickly reassigned to Imperial Intelligence, where she further exceeded expectations as the youngest operative at only nineteen years old. Four years of covert undercover missions only sharpened her ability to lie, and to lie well. After all, she had been lying her whole life.

A violent shudder shook her from her introspection. The shuttle must've breached the atmosphere. She swallowed her fear and steeled herself for what was to come.

The Imperial shuttle touched down on the landing platform, the doors opening to let in a blast of arid wind and blinding sunlight. Statues of ancient Sith Lords were carved into massive cliff facings of chiseled red stone, their intimidating stare looking down upon the denizens of Korriban. Arierra stepped out of the shuttle, escorted by two Imperial officers, who stopped about halfway to the arrival gate and stood in formation.

She was all alone now.

At least this feeling is nothing new, she reminded herself.

There was a dark-skinned man with buzzed hair waiting for her. He wore rather standard Sith attire, black robes augmented by pieces of plasteel armor to cover vital areas. Compared to the rest of the faces she'd seen that day, he seemed somewhat amiable. She kept up her guard. Looks could be deceiving, and failure to recognize this could be deadly.

"At last, you've arrived. Good, good. There is much to do and every moment is critical," the man said. "I'm Overseer Tremel. For decades, I've administered the trials that prove who is and is not worthy to join the Sith Order. The trials are a chance to weed out the weak. Those who face them either survive and become Sith or die."

Just treat this like any other mission, she told herself, trying to stay calm. She played Keeper's voice in her head.

"The mission briefing: infiltrate the Sith Academy. You will assume the identity of a Sith Acolyte. You will perform the trials of the Sith, and you will achieve apprenticeship to a Master. This is a deep cover mission. Contact will be non-existent and if you are discovered we will not acknowledge you. This is your most dangerous mission yet, but I have confidence in your ability to serve the Empire."

It was almost convincing. But the longer she looked in Overseer Tremel's eyes, the more she realized that this would most definitely not be like any of her undercover missions. She could feel his energy. She could feel the Force in and around him. She could feel the Force inside of herself.

It scared her.

She pushed down the fear, knowing all too well that any sign of weakness would be taken advantage of swiftly and brutally. Her mother had once told her that she was relieved that Arierra had no connection to the Force, so she wouldn't have to face the horrors of the Academy trials. Now her mother's worst fears had come to pass.

Only slightly shaken, Arierra was pleased at the ease of which she slipped into yet another persona, this time of the confident Sith acolyte.

"Mark my words, I am destined to be Sith."

That wasn't too ambitious, was it? She had met many Sith who were insufferable elitists, so assured of their great destinies.

With a single sentence, Overseer Tremel pierced through her disguise.

"It wasn't destiny that brought you here," he said with a half-smile.

Oh... right. He can sense my lie through the Force, she realized.

Her confidence was quickly slipping, and for a single moment of sheer panic, she had a crazy thought. The shuttle was still behind her. If she ducked and ran she could knock out the guards and fly away. Her eyes shifted to Tremel's belt and the lightsaber hitched to it. She wouldn't even make it a meter before the lightsaber had impaled her.

"You are here and ahead of schedule because of your...unique circumstances. I expect you to obey. You face your trials, you serve me, and I will make you the most powerful acolyte here." It was obvious that Tremel knew exactly what was on her mind, but he didn't sound overly threatening. In fact, she sensed a tiny bit of dread from him, deep down inside.

Of course. He knows who my father is. Anybody with half a brain would know. He's...afraid of me? No, that's not right. He's afraid of my father. If anything were to happen to me, my father would bring down his wrath upon those who wronged him.

After all, his reputation precedes him. He’s legendary among the Dark Council. Cold, calculating, strategic. Almost like a Jedi in that way. If I want a chance at making it through this, I should keep up the strict professionalism I had in my Intelligence days...

"Sounds like a plan," she said simply.

Overseer Tremel nodded and continued.

"The trials themselves are difficult enough, but they are hardly the greatest threat you face. There's an acolyte here named Vemrin. He's your enemy, and he will try to kill you. We must prepare you."

"How is it that I already have a rival? Maybe he can be reasoned with? We’re both in the same boat here," she asked.

"There are no amends to be made with a creature like Vemrin. We must strengthen your bond with the Force to match his. All you need to know is that you are a threat to him, and he to you. We'll make sure you can stand up to that threat.

"That practice sword you've arrived with is insufficient—the blade of lesser acolytes. You need a dominating weapon. In the tomb of Ajunta Pall, there's an old armory. A strong Sith war blade awaits you there. The tomb is thick with K'lor'slugs—deadly, savage creatures. Be speedy but careful. They've been the end of many an acolyte. Once you acquire the war blade, I suggest you spend some time in the tomb bloodying it. Then come to me in my chambers in the Academy."

The journey through the tomb was rather uneventful. After briefly assisting an Imperial commando with a troublesome slug nest—"strengthening Sith ties with Imperial military," as the man put it—she retrieved the war blade and headed up the ancient stairs out into the desert canyon.

Up ahead was a massive metallic pyramidal structure that could only be the Academy. It was rather intimidating, knowing how many powerful Sith roamed those halls. Her father could be in there somewhere, watching over her training, judging but not interfering. She found Tremel's office easily but was stopped just outside his door by two men. One was an angry looking man with a scar on his face, and the other was a bald hulking pile of muscle, towering over the both of them.

"Hey there, acolyte. Hold on a moment, let me get a look at you," the smaller man said with a gruff voice. He looked her up and down and frowned. "Hmmm...so you're Overseer Tremel's secret weapon, huh? Impressive, to be sure. Afraid the old man waited too long to make his move though. I'm Vemrin, and unlike you I've fought and bled for everything I have. I demand respect."

"This is a big place, Vemrin. There's more than enough room here for both of us," she said, trying to nip any sense of hostility in the bud. It was a tactic she used often in her Intelligence days.

The less I have to look over my shoulder, the easier it is to get the job done, quick and clean.

"I'm glad to hear you say that. There's plenty of room for you, behind me. If Overseer Tremel had made his move a year ago, when I first arrived, you might've had a chance. But now—too little, too late." Arierra had no idea what kind of Sith politics game he was blathering on about, but he was starting to annoy her as much as Jheeg had back on Hutta.

The large man next to her turned to Vemrin.

"This is ridiculous, Vemrin. Let's just kill her already and hide the body," he suggested. Vemrin shook his head in refusal.

"We're not on Balmorra anymore, Dolgis. There are rules. Traditions. We'll leave the shortcuts to Overseer Tremel and his last pathetic hope here," Vemrin explained.

It was becoming quickly obvious to Arierra that there was no reasoning with Vemrin, so she decided to have a little fun and poke at him a bit.

If this is going to be the last week of my life, I might as well loosen up a bit and enjoy it.

"You're not very good with people, are you?" she asked with a smirk.

"You're not funny. Just pathetic. And you've been warned. Coming, Dolgis?" Vemrin asked.

"Be right there, Vemrin," he said as Vemrin left them. Dolgis apparently had more to say.

"Listen to me, you useless priss. Acolytes aren't allowed to murder each other. But accidents happen. It isn't murder without witnesses. No more warnings. Vemrin's the alpha monster here. You go after Vemrin, you die." With that, he walked away.

Charming people, she thought as she walked through the door to Tremel's office. She found him conversing quietly with a young woman.

"Good, you've returned. You seem to be in one piece. Tell me, how do you like your new blade?" Tremel asked.

"I suppose this is sufficient," Arierra said plainly. Deep down, she was itching to hold a real lightsaber. The woman next to her narrowed her eyes and scowled in disgust.

"What are you doing father? I only just got my war blade, and I've been here six months!" she complained.

"I have my reasons, Eskella. And you will not breathe a word of this to anyone. Do you hear?" Tremel warned.

"Yes, father," Eskella said.

"Acolyte, this is Eskella, my daughter. She's one of the advanced students here, on her way to becoming Sith. If she minds herself," he explained.

"I'll keep quiet about your new charge, father. But I won't be there if whatever you're planning blows up in your face." She stormed out of the room leaving the two of them alone.

"Don't mind her. She's just sore that I'm keeping secrets. She growls but she's loyal. Now, I thought I heard Vemrin's voice in the hallway before you arrived. Did he make his move so soon?" Tremel asked.

All this talk about making moves was making her head spin. Sith politics was sounding like it would be infinitely more complicated than covert operations.

"He just introduced himself to me," she said, not wanting to bring up any of Vemrin's threats. Tremel stroked his chin in contemplation.

"If he didn't attack, he must not fully comprehend the threat you represent. Good, good. Still, I'd hoped we'd have more time. Vemrin's not the type to sniff around for too long before trying to take a bite. In a drive for sheer numbers, the criteria for Academy admittance has been relaxed. Now anyone with Force sensitivity is allowed entrance," he said with a shudder. "Vemrin is mixed blood. The invisible rot eating at the foundation of the Empire. He must not be allowed to advance."

I could be mixed blood as well. But I guess when your father is on the Council, that gets overlooked, she thought. She decided to be frank with Tremel for once and let out a little sass.

"So, you're an elitist snob," she said. It was a risk, of course, insulting her mentor. But it was a risk she was realizing she could afford.

"You say that like it's a bad thing. It's the Sith way. Only the best, only the most pure, should be good enough. Unfortunately, Vemrin's caught the eye of Darth Baras, one of the most influential Sith Lords. He's being groomed to be Baras's new apprentice. As Darth Baras's apprentice, the power at Vemrin's fingertips will be considerable. He could change the Sith for the worse. You must proceed to your next trial immediately. I want you to interrogate three prisoners in the Academy jails and decide their fates. Consider each criminal's story carefully. The decisions you make will be scrutinized, so let your passions guide your judgements. Go to the Academy prison. Speak to the head jailer Knash, and return to me after you've passed judgement on the prisoners."

The prison wasn't very far from Tremel's office. As she stepped through the door she could hear what she presumed to be Knash threatening a prisoner. Knash was leaned up against a crate facing a jail cell that was holding a cute blue Twi'lek girl wearing a slave shock collar.

"One more chirp from you, little bird, and you'll regret it," Knash said menacingly.

"Chirp, chirp chirp," the Twi'lek said. Arierra laughed.

She's certainly got some backbone.

Knash apparently didn't like the joke. He pressed a button on a handheld device, and the shock collar activated, stinging the Twi'lek girl.

"Ow! Jerk! If you don't like that, just say so. I can do other animals too. Dire-cat, frog-dog, Kowakian monkey-lizard, you name it."
Knash ignored her as Arierra stepped up to the cage.

"You, I'm jailer Knash. I run these cells and slave pits. You're the acolyte Tremel sent for the test, right? He thinks highly of you," he said.

"That's good to hear. I want to do well," Arierra said.

"You should know," Knash continued, "this situation is highly unusual. Normally an acolyte goes off-world for the interrogation. Overseer Tremel had these three shipped in for you. He think's you're the next coming of Exar Kun. But you ought to know, Tremel ain't the only one paying attention to you."

Her thoughts briefly drifted to her father. Knash turned away from the Twi'lek girl and gestured to three other cells.

"These three prisoners have been transferred here for your inspection. You gotta interrogate them as needed, and then decide their fate. The convicted are usually executed or given a trial by combat to see if they're worthy. Whatever your decide, you will be the one to carry out the sentence."

Arierra took a long breath in. She couldn't remember the last time she had this much autonomy. Every moment of her life was devoted to a mission, devoted to keeping secrets from everyone around her. Everyone was pushing her to go the direction they wanted. She had been making decisions as other people for so long, she almost didn't know what it would be like to decide for herself. What would she, Arierra Sarrak, former Intelligence agent, current Sith acolyte, do in this situation? She was only a Sith acolyte by circumstance, not by any choice of her own. Her thoughts drifted to her mother, and the lessons she was taught in secret. She remembered her mother's greatest lesson: survival, at any cost.

"Alright, lets started. This one on the left—"

"You freaks aren't getting anything new out of me. Just do whatever you're going to do," the woman behind the bars growled. It was now or never.

"You can either talk to me or to the Inquisitors. And I promise, I have a much sunnier disposition," Arierra said, folding her arms across her chest.

"Get lost! I've been through this routine. I already know all your Inquisitors by name," the prisoner said.

"Impudent to the last," Knash commented. "As I was saying, she was sent to kill an Imperial spy in the Yavin system. Throughout her torture, she maintained that she was hired anonymously."

"Get it through your damn head—I had no idea he was Imperial, and I don't know who hired me!" she protested.

"So you're telling me you're not a Republic assassin?" Arierra asked.

"I'm not political. I work for whoever pays," the prisoner explained. Knash stepped in.

"The point is, she doesn't deny the charge. So, now you must decide. Execution or trial by combat. Which do you choose?"

The gears in her head were turning quickly. Knash had explained that the convicted were usually executed, not always. Meaning there was room for out of the box thinking.

"Neither actually. She could prove useful. Send her to Imperial Intelligence," Arierra demanded.

"I won't work for free," the prisoner chimed in.

"Hmm...you spared her. Interesting," Knash noted. He seemed genuinely perplexed by the outcome.

They walked to the second cell and the man behind the bars was practically on the floor, begging for his life.

"Please! I am a fellow Sith. Judge me with an open mind and grant me trial by combat. I beg you!" he sniveled.

"What’s your name?" she asked. Knash answered for him.

"This pile of waste is Devotek. Once a valued Sith champion, until he botched an Imperial mission and caused a thousand Imperial deaths. Now look at him," he said as he spat towards the cage.

"I served faithfully for twenty-four years, then one mistake and they threw me away!" Devotek mumbled. "Now I've been left here to rot. Please, let me feel the weight of a weapon once more."

"You don't deserve that honor, and I don't do charity work," she said.

"Then I die a disgrace," he muttered.

Time for bit of exercise in her new abilities. She raised her arm and reached out. She felt past her skin, past the air, through the bars of the cell towards the man whimpering in front of her. She guided the Force around his throat and squeezed tight, and she could feel it, almost as if she were choking him with her own hands. It was exhilarating, and frightening. Slowly she closed her hand into a balled-up fist, squeezing her fingers against her palm, so tightly that her nails were digging into her skin. She felt his fear, felt his terror, and then felt nothing. Devotek fell to the floor, dead.

"Good. Now I won't have to look at his sad weathered face anymore," Knash said as he spat towards Devotek's fresh corpse. "Thank you."

She felt anger rise in her. "That man served for a long time. You should be more respectful," she growled.

"This last prisoner is a bit of a puzzle. He's called Brehg, and he's a jittery little wretch. Suspected of supplying forged documents to Republic agents. Strangely enough, he maintains his innocence despite being severely tortured," Knash explained.

Brehg was a different species than Jheeg, but just as ugly. Arierra pulled out her translator. It was doubtful this alien spoke Basic.

"That's because innocent I am! Believe me, you gotta—I had nothing to do with forging no papers! Set up! I was set up!"

Arierra chuckled. "Are you trying to tell me you've led a clean life?"

"Well, I never said that," Brehg admitted. "Did some time in a Republic jail for forgery, so I was the perfect candidate to implicate in this. But I've been straight ever seen getting out. I swear!"

"Hmmm...he's never wavered from that line, and the evidence is circumstantial. I suppose it's possible he didn't do it. What do you decide?" Knash asked.

It wasn't much to go on. He seemed innocent, but he could be lying. Either way, it was an easy answer.

"I don't care if he's innocent or not. Torture him enough and he'll confess!" She reached out with the Force again. It was so much easier the second time around. Just as he was about to lose consciousness, she slammed him to the bottom of his cell and let go.

"It's not fair!" Brehg cried out.

"Shut up you fidgety fool! The decision's been made," Knash said. "Well, I guess it's back off to the Inquisitors for him. That's that. You're an interesting one, kid. I can see why people are keeping tabs on you. Head back to Overseer Tremel and see what he thinks of your choices."

Back in Tremel's office, Arierra waited with increasing nerves. Tremel stepped inside soon after she did.

"Sorry to make you wait, acolyte. These interruptions are incredibly annoying. Now, onto the business at hand: your test in the jails. First the assassin. She attempted to kill an Imperial spy but was unaware of her client's affiliation. You assigned her to Imperial Intelligence. I commend you, that was excellent thinking. Never waste a potential resource."

"Thank you, Overseer. I'm glad you approve," Arierra said quietly.

"What's more important is that Darth Baras would approve. Now, the failed warrior Devotek. He wanted combat but you struck him down. Perfect. The man was utterly useless. Devotek was an utter waste of space."

"I took no pleasure in killing him," Arierra admitted.

"And why would you? It's like taking out the trash. You don't think about it, you just do it. Once something is no longer useful, it should be eradicated. Remember that. Now, the forger you sent back for more torture even though he seemed innocent. A strong decision. Leave no stone unturned."

"A ripple from even a tiny stone can flow a great distance," she said, quoting a Jedi proverb her mother once told her.

"Well, look who turned deep and insightful," Tremel muttered with a smirk.

"Each time, each prisoner, you made the best possible decision. You may yet be able to challenge Vemrin for Darth Baras' attention."

"Thank you, Overseer."

"Thank yourself, acolyte. It's performances like this that just might beat the extreme odds we're facing. You must always be thinking, considering every angle. Aside from a strong and skilled sword arm, this will be what impresses Darth Baras the most. You're beginning to understand what it means to be Sith.

"Because you were forced into the academy ahead of schedule, Darth Baras will be predisposed to judging you severely. And by severely, I mean fatally. Now, we must hurry to your next trial. Every moment that passes we risk discovery before we're ready."

Chapter Text

"In the caverns of Marka Ragnos hides the beast he left to guard his legacy. Go there, sit among the flames, and wait for the beast to come for you," Overseer Tremel commanded.

"I break beasts' necks in my sleep," Arierra said confidently.

"Don't be rash. Defeating this creature will take your best effort," Tremel warned. "Return to the Valley of the Dark Lords and find the tomb of Marka Ragnos. I'll see you when the beast is slain. Good luck."

With that, she was off, swiftly exiting the cool interior of the temple to face the hot sands of Korriban once more. The trip to the tomb was short. The Korriban Academy was directly in the center of the monuments to the ancient Sith Lords; the architects hoping to siphon unnatural power and wisdom from their long dead predecessors.

As Arierra approached the long valley, she was beckoned by a rather obese Lord of the Sith with one arm elbow-deep inside of a dissected tuk'ata hound. There were cages set up to house more of the creatures in some sort of ragtag laboratory.

"A fresh young acolyte! Come to view my experiments? I trust the sight of a messy operating table doesn't disturb you?"

"I have no fear of death things," she said, doing her best to remain stoic. The horrid stench from the beast's corpse, bloated and rotting in the Korriban sun, was testing her professionalism.

"All fine and good—but lack of fear and genuine interest are two different things. This used to be a tuk'ata, the hound like beasts infesting Korriban's tombs. On the surface, nothing special. But I alone can see this creature is an expression of pure dark side energy. Aggression made manifest!"

It was obvious this Sith Lord was insane, and it would be in Arierra's best interest to go along with whatever he was babbling about. Lords of the Sith had full authority to cut down an acolyte where they stood even for the slightest infractions.

"Amazing. How did you learn that?" she asked, feigning interest. The Sith Lord's eyes lit up and he smiled, eager to share his knowledge.

"The Force told me so. It speaks to me. The Force is alive. It expresses its will in the physical world. This tuk'ata was one such form." As insane as he was, Arierra did remember hearing about the Living Force from her mother's teachings.

"Are we another of these forms?" she asked.

"Sith are the highest manifestations of the Force's will. I've dissected hundreds of tuk'ata, forming a direct connection to the dark side. Each beast I examine advances me towards perfect unity. I now stand at a new frontier but find myself thwarted. My most perfect specimen—a tuk'ata mutant—escaped to the tombs before I could analyze it."

"Your work is too important to fail, my lord," Arierra said, lying through her teeth.

"Indeed. Perhaps the Force has brought you to me for a reason. You acolytes delve into the tombs on your trials. You could hunt that tuk'ata for me and retrieve its perfect brain. My apprentice Malora saw which tomb the beast fled to. Find out what she knows, assist me, and you will be rewarded."

Arierra turned and found the apprentice on the other side of the makeshift lab, scanning one of the beasts. As soon as she approached, Malora started to laugh.

"Seeking Lord Renning's lost pet, are you? Don't waste your time. That fool's research is pointless," she said.

"I agree, but I don't exactly have much of a choice here," Arierra admitted.

"Glad to know I'm not the only one who sees through my master's inane babbling. Renning deludes the Dark Council into thinking he's advancing Sith knowledge, when he's really wasting the Empire's time and resources dissecting mindless animals! But...if his experiments were discredited, he would be banished, and I would be rewarded. Bring me the brain before delivering it to Lord Renning, and I'll make it worth your while."

She had faced this kind of thing before, Sith interrupting Imperial Intelligence operations with their own agendas and wasting everybody's time. Defying a Sith Lord might not be the smartest thing to do on Korriban, but this Lord Renning was so wrapped up in his own ego he wouldn't know anything had gone wrong.

"Will do," she said as she walked towards the entrance of the tombs. With every step she grew colder. She could feel the overwhelming presence of evil, and she stopped short of the threshold where the soft red sand stopped, and the smooth stone began. She couldn't help imagining the dark cave as a giant mouth, waiting for her to step deeper inside so it could snap shut, swallowing her whole.

Dealing with the mutant tuk'ata was easy. It was a little larger than the other tuk'ata in the tomb but provided her no trouble. The dread was palpable as she descended the steps further into the main chamber of Marka Ragnos' tomb.

In the center of the chamber there was a stone alter with two braziers lit with blue flames. The incense was so sweet it covered up the stench of the brain she was carrying in a backpack Renning had provided her with. She approached and knelt on the dusty stone floor, closing her eyes. A minute of silence passed, and she found herself aware of another presence in the room, a hatred and hunger that hadn't been felt in thousands of years. She opened her eyes to find herself face to face with a gigantic beast. It was all claws and spikes with a hundred needle-sharp teeth and too many eyes.

The beast did not hesitate to attack. It swiped outwards with a hooked claw, and Arierra had barely enough time to dive out of the way before she was this monster's dinner. She got back up and readied her practice saber, but the beast had already turned to face her again. Despite its massive size, it was deadly fast.

Arierra slashed with her blade but the creatures armored hide was too thick. Her weapon simply bounced off, the force of the reverberation rattling her bones. The monster slashed at her again, and she brought up her weapon to defend herself, gripping the hilt tightly with both hands to keep the claws away from her face. There was no way she was going to be able to kill this thing with her weapon. As the creature pressed down on her harder, she closed her eyes, doing her best to calm her rapid breathing.

She remembered what her mother had taught her about fear, and how the state of her mind could turn the tide of the battle in the favor of her or her opponent. The blade she was holding was not her only weapon.

"There is no emotion, there is peace," she whispered aloud.

Carefully, she let go of her practice blade with her left hand. The blade and claws came closer, now mere centimeters away from her exposed flesh. She held out her hand and felt the Force flowing around her. She gathered it, felt it surging through her, and sent it outwards, enveloping the beast.

The beast faltered, surprised at its prey's newfound strength. Before it could react further, Arierra tightened her palm into a fist. She could feel the beast's throat as it was crushed under the overwhelming weight of the Force. It slumped over, dead.

Arierra fell backwards onto the floor, wiping the sweat from her eyes, breathing heavily. She sat for several minutes, just breathing, regaining her energy. Tremel was right, it had been a tough fight. When she was ready, she exited the tomb, crossed the desert valley, and returned to Lord Renning's laboratory and met back up with Malora.

"Good, you're back. I'm eager to conclude the business we discussed," Malora said with a knowing smile.

"Enjoy!" Arierra said, smiling back as she handed Malora the backpack. Malora opened it and retrieved a large needle from a nearby table, injecting a sickeningly green fluid deep into the center of the brain.

"Excellent. This chemical will make it appear as if Renning is falsifying his research. I'm transferring credits to your account now. Give Renning the brain and collect your reward from him too. You've made out quite well."

"I did this for the greater good of the Empire," Arierra said proudly.

"But you'll take my credits, won't you? Planning to donate them to the Imperial orphanage, hmmm? Now, hurry up and take it to my master before he gets suspicious." Arierra took back the brain and hurried on over to Lord Renning. His operating table was even messier than before.

"Ah, you have the brain at last! I trust it wasn't too much trouble?" he asked excitedly. He had been too engrossed with his dissection that he failed to notice his apprentice’s treachery right in front of him.

"It was the toughest fight of my life!" Arierra half-lied. Renning didn't have to know which beast she was referring to.

"I imagine so! Just look at the size of the specimen!" he said grabbing the bag and dumping the brain out onto the table without sterilizing his hands or his workstation. "The mottling on the frontal lobe! I must continue my research at once! Great discoveries await! Take your reward and go." She turned and fled the laboratory, eager to get on with her trials and off this horrible planet.

As she was closing in on Tremel's office, a large man came around the corner and stood firmly in her path.

"Well, look who's here. Remember me?" the man said, looking down on her with a cruel smile.

"Your name is Dolgis, right? Vemrin's friend?" she asked.

"Very good!" he said as patronizingly as he could. "It's good to know the name of your killer. Notice anything interesting?” He shrugged and gestured to the empty hallway to great effect. “No witnesses. No witnesses means no rules. No more shortcuts. No more special treatment. You're just gonna be another dead failure on Korriban." He activated his sword and slashed.

Arierra was relieved that she had decided to take time to rest after her battle with the beast in the tomb. If she had been too tired from the previous fight she would've been cut to ribbons. Instead, she avoided the attack, dancing around Dolgis' slashes with ease. He had strength but no finesse. He lunged forward and she slid around his back, kicking outwards to send him sprawling to the floor. She didn't even have to use her weapon. She readied herself for his counterattack when she heard whimpering.

"No! Hold up! Look, I was wrong. What they're saying about you...totally true. So strong! I don't wanna die!"

So much for the tough-guy Sith persona, she thought.

"Next time you won't be so lucky," Arierra warned.

"Oh, you won't see me again, I promise!" Dolgis managed to stammer out the words as he shook in fear. She could sense the truth in his pathetic words. He limped past her in a hurry, and she continued into the Overseer's office.

Overseer Tremel's brow was scrunched and he had a scowl on his face. His eyes darted around the room, searching for some invisible adversary.

"We must speak quickly, acolyte, there isn't much time. I may have made a slight miscalculation."

Just wonderful. I’m barely here for one day and already things are falling apart.

"The beast of Marka Ragnos was a great source of dark energy here on Korriban. When it was slain, there was a tremor in the Force. Darth Baras has felt that tremor and has become aware of you. He demands an audience."

She asked a question that had been on her mind since the minute she set foot on Korriban but was too afraid to voice aloud.

"Do you think I'm ready for this?"

"It doesn't matter what I think. Ready or not, you must face him now. Baras is a serious man and a master of deception. Everything he does and says is calculated. He will attempt to trip you up, test your nature, get to the heart of who you are. Always take him seriously. And I mean always."

"Consider me warned," she said, trying to hide her rising fear.

"We might not speak again, acolyte. You're the best chance of stopping Vemrin. If you fail, I doubt there will be another strong enough. Good luck."

Arierra ascended the steps to the second floor of the Academy, and with each step her heart beat faster. She could feel the oppressive gloom of the dark side of the Force emanating from the Lords’ offices. It was heavy on her shoulders, but she persisted.

She stepped into Darth Baras's chambers to find him sitting behind an ornate desk addressing a group of five other acolytes. She stayed in the back, waiting for him to finish speaking. Interrupting him would not make for a good first impression.

He was an obese man wearing elaborate armor. Intricate carvings covered his full faced mask, and his voice had an unsettling robotic quality to it.

"Most of you will not return from this endeavor. If you die, you will be forgotten. If you give up, you will be killed. Now, out of my sight." The acolytes filed out one by one, but two of them stepped forward to face Arierra. One of them was Vemrin, the other she didn't know.

"I have a bad feeling about this," the nervous looking man muttered to Vemrin.

"You should," Vemrin said. "This is the end of the line for you, Klemral. Just make sure to stay out of my way."

"Look here, Vemrin. I see the upstart, but no sign of Dolgis," Klemral remarked.

A voice of power filled the room as Darth Baras rose from his chair.

"Klemral. Vemrin. You have been dismissed," Darth Baras commanded.

"Yes master!" Klemral said as he scurried off. Vemrin took a step closer to Arierra.

"I underestimated you by sending Dolgis. It will not happen again," he hissed as he sauntered out of the room.

"Are you having trouble with acolyte Vemrin, supplicant?" Darth Baras asked.

"Nothing gets under my skin," she said, trying to maintain a brave face.

"He is thoroughly capable of backing up his threats. He's fought a deck stacked against him to get there. You on the other hand..."

Darth Baras stepped around his massive desk and moved slowly towards Arierra, each word and step in sync until he was towering before her.

"Let me get a closer look at you. Yes, as I suspected. Overseer Tremel has done you and this Academy a great disservice. Your warblade came early, prisoners flown in for your convenience, even a beast here on Korriban instead of offworld in the wild. The pacing of the trials is deliberate. Only full immersion over time produces results. Your mind is soft! Unhoned! Undisciplined!"

Undisciplined!? Did her years serving in the Imperial military, in Imperial Intelligence, mean nothing? She felt her indignation rising, but quickly bottled it. It would not be wise to talk back to him, especially now.

"Apologies, Lord. It was never my intention to offend," she said quietly.

"But it is offensive! To be presented with an acolyte who doesn't even have a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be Sith!"

How was she supposed to have any understanding of the Sith, of the Force in general, when she wasn't even Force sensitive until a few days ago!? Darth Baras must've known of her special circumstances. But Darth Baras was not one to care about the unfairness of life. He continued his tirade.

"The first month of trials should be dedicated to philosophy, conceptual tactics, understanding of the Sith Code. Recite the Sith Code for me, acolyte, and explain its meaning in battle, war, and politics."

"I don't recall learning a Sith Code," she admitted after an awkward silence. She did not dare mention the code she had learned from her mother.

"Your ability is undeniable. But your readiness and understanding of the Sith way is woefully lacking. I am your master now. Tremel was becoming lax before you ever arrived. His unwillingness to adapt to the evolving Sith paradigm has become a liability. These are the actions of a traitor. Traitors are to be executed. I grant you immunity from punishment. Kill Tremel and bring back his hand as proof. I'm sure Tremel is still in his chambers. Don't return until you've killed him," Darth Baras commanded.

Arierra steeled herself for what was to come. She stepped into Tremel's office, where Tremel looked up from his paperwork with surprise.

"I didn't expect to see you again so soon. Has Baras sent you back to me?" he asked, completely unaware of his impending fate.

"Baras ordered me to kill you," Arierra said plainly. An odd smile crept onto Tremel's face.

"Then I have been outplayed. Baras has the authority, but I did not think he would do something this overt. Either I die, or he forces me to kill you and destroy my own plan. A master stroke." He rose slowly from his chair.

"Very well, you have your orders, acolyte. Know that it gives me no pleasure to kill you. I'll try to make your end quick and painless. It's the least I can do."

What a sweetheart.

He ignited his lightsaber and struck quickly, but Arierra was ready. She blocked and parried. Her practice blade was less powerful than a true lightsaber, and it wouldn't hold up for very long in this duel. A few quick slashes and Tremel was on the ground, holding his side where Arierra's blade had pierced through his armor.

"I'm amazed...I knew you were strong in the Force, but not like this! You're more than ready to challenge Vemrin. Baras won't be able to deny that now," he said through heavy breathing. "He'll have the satisfaction of my death, but I die knowing my success. Go on...end this."

Arierra stared down at him, her thoughts once again turning to her mother. Her mother had always been a light in her life, and the Jedi teachings that Arierra had taken to heart hadn't all been washed away by Imperial propaganda. Life was precious. She'd killed before, but only in self-defense.

But here—on Korriban—things were different. If she spared Tremel's life, Darth Baras would certainly notice, wouldn't he? Surely he would be reaching out with the Force, and would sense Tremel's death, as he sensed the death of the beast? Or perhaps Tremel wasn't important enough for Baras to care. Perhaps she could make an ally—

No. It was too risky. Above all, survival was what mattered. Even her kindhearted mother had preached that. Arierra would have to harden her heart if she wanted any chance to get out of this alive.

"You fought bravely, Overseer. Die with your head held high."

"Farewell, acolyte. The purity of the Sith lies in you," he said quietly.

Arierra swung her blade, and Tremel fell to the floor.

She severed his hand and quickly returned to Darth Baras' office. She passed by acolytes and Sith Lords  in the halls of the Academy while holding a dismembered appendage, but none gave her a second glance, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

"The acolyte returns with a bloodied weapon. I assume this means Tremel is no more? Give me his hand," Baras said.

She presented Baras with the severed hand, and he placed it on his desk like it was a framed family photo.

"I'm impressed you had the fortitude to destroy him. You know he thought of you as family. How did it feel to betray him?" Baras asked. Arierra was caught off guard by the question, lost in thought about how Overseer Tremel, a man she had known less than a day, had thought of her as family.

"I did what was called for," she said simply.

"You mask your feelings well. As long as you don't suppress them," Baras advised. "You have taken your first step to understanding the Sith Code:

 

"Peace is a lie. There is only passion.

Through passion I gain strength.

Through strength I gain power.

Through power I gain victory.

Through victory my chains are broken.

The Force shall free me.

 

"By embracing the Code and destroying Tremel, you have freed yourself from his shackles, and escaped his fate," Baras explained.

"And now I'm bound by your shackles," she observed.

"You will find they are a marked improvement, with much greater potential range. Now, there are sacred ruins in the Tomb of Tulak Hord. The ancient inscriptions that once adorned the walls of each ruin lie in pieces. You will venture through the entire tomb, search all of the ruins, and bring me back shards from each of these inscriptions. You will do this, or you will die.

"Vemrin and my other acolytes have already been sent. There are no rules regarding how they secure the shards, and they will stop at nothing. Now, you are dismissed."

Chapter Text

As Arierra approached the main entrance of the Academy, an old woman wearing ornate purple robes stepped in front of her. Arierra vaguely recognized her but couldn't place from when or where.

"I have need of you, Agent Sarrak. Whatever errand your master sent you on can wait until we are through," she commanded.

"As you decree, my lord," Arierra said with a snort nod. "But I am not an agent any longer."

Baras was already losing what little patience he had with her. She didn't need to make yet another enemy.

"I am Inquisitor Urinth, and I represent the Intelligence operations of the Sith. We are currently holding an important Jedi prisoner: a spy who attempted to reach this Academy. Upon capture, we found the Jedi's mind simple to manipulate. We fed him false memories through a combination of drugs and sorcery. Soon he will return to his Jedi commanders and report the lies we fed him. He will know nothing of what we've done. All that remains is to stage his escape."

"How are you going to pull that off?" Arierra asked, her curiosity piqued.

"You are young enough, new enough, to be a plausible traitor. You will go to the Jedi, talk to him. Do as he asks, earn his trust. When that is done, set him free. Do whatever is necessary to get him out of prison. We will ensure that he reaches his ship and returns safely to his Jedi friends."

"How do I know you won't accuse me of treason?" she asked, extremely wary of how often the Sith back-stabbed their colleagues.

"Prove your strength—prove that you are truly Sith—and all the accusations in the world will mean nothing. You will find the Jedi Quorian Dorjis in the jail cells. He is still confused and should not be difficult to convince."

The cages that housed the three prisoners she had interrogated during her last visit were empty. The only two cells occupied contained the blue Twi'lek, sleeping on the cold metal floor, and a man on his knees, whispering to himself.

"There is no emotion, there is peace. There is no ignorance, there is knowledge. The Jedi Code will guide me," the man said quietly.

"I take it you're the Jedi who was captured?" Arierra asked. The man slowly rose to his feet and opened his eyes.

"I am Quorian Dorjis. I am a Jedi, even on Korriban. Why do you care? Why are you here?" he inquired.

"No one deserves this kind of suffering. I'm here to set you free," Arierra said.

"You mean that? A Sith with a conscience. You're here to help me?" Quorian asked. He paused for a moment and looked around the room. "Why am I talking in circles? What's wrong with me?"

"The Inquisitors are messing with your mind. They're pumping you full of drugs," Arierra admitted.

"I...suspected as much. It's so hard to think straight. There is no passion, there is serenity. There is no chaos, there is harmony. The Jedi code will guide me. Okay, I can focus.

"If you want to help me to escape, I'll need my belongings—my lightsaber and comm link. Before I was captured, the Sith chased me into the Tomb of Tulak Hord. I hid my belongings inside an urn to lighten my load. That is where you'll need to go," the Jedi explained.

This was odd. The task Darth Baras gave her, and now this assignment from Urinth, both led to the same tomb? Her mother had often told her there is no such thing as coincidence, merely the will of the Force.

The Tomb of Tulak Hord was enormous, with several cave systems encircling a large open wasteland of red sand with what looked to be what was once a great stone gazebo in the center. The valuables of the ancient Sith Lord had been picked clean by graverobbers long ago, but in the great vaults of the caves, Arierra had no trouble finding her real prize. Ancient shards adorned with hieroglyphics were still scattered around the chambers, left behind by thieves who figured the dusty broken pottery was worthless. She found the urn containing Quorian's supplies easily enough on her way out. The whole task took her less than an hour, only finding minimal resistance in the form of a few flying shyrack who dared to divebomb her. They were a nuisance, but easy enough to scare away.

Back in the Academy, Arierra decided to clear up the business with the Jedi before returning to Baras.

"I know you. We talked before. My head's clearer now, Sith," Quorian said. Arierra opened her pack to show him that she had indeed retrieved his supplies.

"It's all here. My lightsaber, commlink, everything. You're really going through with it?" Arierra nodded in confirmation. "With this, once the guards switch shifts, I think I can slip out of the Academy. But what about you? Will you be okay?"

"Me? I'll be fine. I'm more worried about you," she said.

"That's very kind of you, Sith. I still don't understand why you're doing this, but thank you," Quorian said. She turned and took three steps towards the jail exit when she stopped in her tracks and turned back around to face the Jedi again.

 

It was unplanned. 

 

Spur-of-the-moment. 

 

Entirely unlike her. 

 

He was the enemy.

 

Part of her was screaming to stop. 

 

Part of her didn't want to stop. 

 

It came out of her mouth before she could decide against it: 

 

"It's a trap. Your memories were altered. When you report back to the Jedi, you'll tell them exactly what the Sith want you to."

"What? That explains why you would help me out, but not why you would tell me the truth... It isn't important. I need to go speak to my Masters about this. You need to go, so nobody gets suspicious. I'm sorry the Empire took you in, instead of the Jedi. If things had been different, maybe you could've been part of the Order." 

Arierra swallowed her nerves. She had made her choice, now she had to live with it. Any sign of regret or fear would let the Inquisitor read her like an open book. She returned to Urinth quickly.

"The Jedi is preparing his escape. You did well. I have confidence our operation will succeed. Our business is concluded. I will make note of your assistance in my report," Urinth said, not bothering to even look up from the datapad she was reading.

"What about the Jedi? Will he be safe?" Arierra asked.

"No Jedi is safe," Urinth said. "Sooner or later the Empire will destroy the Jedi Order entirely. Know this: no Jedi can threaten Korriban."

Arierra left Urinth to her reading and headed up the stairs to Darth Baras' office.

Acolyte Klemral was waiting in front of the entrance. "You got the shards from the tomb and you're on your way back to Lord Baras?"

"You have a remarkable grasp of the obvious. Are you here to congratulate me?" she asked.

"I'll take that as a 'yes',” Klemral said as he powered up his practice saber. Not even ten seconds passed before Klemral was on the floor begging for his life.

"Stop! I made a mistake! I tried to get through the tomb but there were just too many shyrack! I figured it would be better to ambush you and take your shards. But I see that is just as futile. Vemrin is inside with Baras. All the other acolytes died. You were my only chance. Now I'm doomed... Unless I return with the shards, Baras will have me killed."

Arierra powered down her warblade and extended her hand to help lift Klemral up from the floor.

"Why don't you flee? Get off the planet, give up trying to be Sith?" she asked, wondering why she didn't try the very thing she was asking.

"You can't get off Korriban without official clearance," Klemral explained. Arierra suppressed a laugh. She couldn't exactly advise Klemral to hitch a ride with Quorian Dorjis without giving away her hand in his escape. "I might be able to hide in the wild, but I wouldn't survive long."  

She felt an odd presence in her mind. No, presence wasn't quite the right word. It was more like a path that had opened before her, one she hadn't seen before but was quite certain had been there all along. She was being pulled toward it, but she felt no menace. She felt peace, and strangely, sorrow.

"I have more than enough shards for the both of us. Take some of them," she offered.

"You're giving me your shards?" he asked in utter disbelief. "Thank you! What can I do to repay you?"

"Nothing. Just consider this a gift between friends. Just don't mention it to anyone," she said. Arierra was quite certain this was the right choice. She just wasn't sure why.

"Are you kidding? I won't breathe a word!" Klemral whispered excitedly. They entered Baras' chambers, side by side.

"The prodigal supplicant returns—and with the shards from the tomb. Superb. It appears Klemral was right and you were wrong, Vemrin," Darth Baras said.

"Appearances can be deceptive," Vemrin grumbled, his eyes shooting daggers towards Arierra.

"Excuse Vemrin, acolyte. He expected you to fall on your face," Baras explained.

"This is old hat for Vemrin. He should be used to disappointment by now," Arierra said with a smirk.

"The tension is thick between you two. A great source of emotion to feed on. I wonder what will happen when it boils over.

"But first, a matter to clear up. There is very little that escapes my scrutiny and I know, Arierra, that you provided Klemral with his shards. So since it was only by your tolerance that Klemral stands before me, I leave his fate in your hands. What should I do with him?" Baras asked.

"He still managed to succeed. The directive was by any means necessary. That kind of resourcefulness should be rewarded, and he recognized his limitations, which has its own merit," Arierra explained.

"Yes, the next trial would destroy him instantly. Surviving this long is no small feat, so I agree he should be allowed to live. I do not find him to be Sith material, but perhaps he can be of some use. Klemral, I'm assigning you to oversee the Academy prisons. It's not a glamorous post but do your job and you'll be respected here. Report to Jailer Knash immediately."

"Thank you, my lord. Thank you both," Klemral said as he bowed deeply, exiting Baras' chambers as quickly as possible. Baras turned to face the last two acolytes.

"He certainly lacks backbone, but perhaps he'll rise above that someday. Now, are the two of you ready for your final trial? You both stand on the precipice of becoming Sith, but only one of you will have the opportunity to claim a special lightsaber and serve as my apprentice. I thought it would be you, Vemrin, but I've changed my mind."

"What!? I've done everything you've asked. Better than any of the others! The honor should be mine!" Vemrin growled, his voice rising with every word.

"Ignore Vemrin, Lord Baras. His world is crumbling around him," Arierra said.

"Today Vemrin is every bit your equal but the Force is stronger with you, Arierra, and there is a power sleeping within you. It was a simple decision. Now, Vemrin, go wait in my antechamber for your instructions. This instant!"

Vemrin stormed out of the door, mumbling under his breath. Baras turned to Arierra, and suddenly she felt a centimeter tall.

"Now, I hope you fathom how fortunate you are to be singled out. If you become my apprentice, the galaxy will bend before you. The lightsaber you will seek is old and powerful. It is housed in a forbidden cavern in the tomb of Naga Sadow where few Sith have ever set foot. Almost no one knows how to find the secret entrance, but there is a Twi'lek in the holding pens who was caught breaking in there. I hear she is quite...willful. Take her and make her show you the entrance to the forbidden cave."

Arierra nodded.

"Other acolytes seeking to complete the trials are sent to this tomb, where Academy laws are waived. They will try to murder you. This final test will determine if you become Sith. So, bolster yourself. Feed on your anger, hatred, and fear! To set foot in the tomb of Naga Sadow is to breathe in death itself!"

 

Arierra returned to the jails for a third time. A loud zap filled the room.

"Ouch! Give it a rest, will you?" the Twi'lek pleaded.

"I'm getting my fill of fun while I still can, slave," Knash said with a twisted smile. "Ah, as if on cue, look who's back. Word is you might become Lord Baras' apprentice. Nice work, if you can get it. Baras supposedly sent me an acolyte named Klemral—some whiny little castoff—but the deadbeat hasn't shown up. You know anything about him?"

"Klemral means well and he tries hard," Arierra said.

"He ought to try hard to be on time," Knash scoffed. "So, I hear you'll be relieving me of this Twi'lek. She's a pain in the neck."

"Ha!" the Twi'lek laughed. "Who's a pain in the neck? I'm the one wearing the shock collar."

"Consider that a going away present, slave. Seems you might be useful for something after all—this acolyte is taking you into the tomb where we caught you."

The Twi'lek rolled her eyes. "None of you can figure out how to activate the tomb statues to open the forbidden cavern, huh?" She asked it as if it was the easiest thing to do in the world. "You got some kind of business in that secret Sith chamber, do you?"

"Yes, and I'd appreciate your help. What's your name?" Arierra asked.

"I'm Vette—"

"Don't bother being pleasant," Knash interrupted. "Here, kid, take this shock collar control. I'll set it to a higher level. Use it enough, she'll show you the back door to her mother's house."

"I suppose I can play tomb tour guide. A lot of work went into cracking that nut, but I did it once and I can do it again," Vette said. "But just so we're clear, I'm officially on strike when it comes to domestic duties."

"I promise you, I won't require a maid," Arierra said with a smile.

"Well then, maybe things are looking up for me," Vette said, trying her best to return Arierra's smile. "As if they could get any worse."

Knash deactivated the force field keeping Vette locked up and she stepped forward to face Arierra.

"Lead the way. I'll show you the unlocking points throughout the tomb and then open the secret door for you."

 

Arierra and Vette set out to once again brave the hot sands of Korriban, this time arriving at the closest tomb to the Academy. There was a guard stationed outside the entrance to the cavern.

"Acolyte, may I speak to you for a moment?"

"Permission granted, sentry," Arierra said.

"Thank you. I am honored that you would do me the courtesy. There was another acolyte, not long ago, who entered this tomb and did not come back. He...he died in there," she said quietly.

"And you were worried I might die as well? That's sweet," Arierra said, trying to lighten the mood.

"No! I mean, of course you would survive...if you went in there...it's just..." the guard was starting to fidget and looked towards the ground, not daring to meet Arierra's gaze.

"It's alright, sentry. I'm not going to bite. Take a deep breath and calm down," Arierra said softly.

After a short silence, the guard regained her composure.

"The acolyte who went in there...he was a good sort. Friendly and talkative. He said he was entering the tomb to prove himself to his father. I just thought it would be nice if somebody took his body back and told his father he didn't make it. I'd never survive in there, and even if I did, I wouldn't be allowed to see his father. He is a dark honor guard stationed in the Academy. None but Sith can ever set foot on the sacred ground where he stands watch."

"If I see the acolyte's body, I will try to retrieve it," Arierra said.

Just past the main entrance hallway was a sharp right turn which lead into a large open chamber. In the center of the cave, a recently dead acolyte's body was sprawled on the floor.

"Poor guy didn't make it very far," Vette said. "Let's hope we have better luck."

 

With Vette's knowledge of the hidden mechanisms, navigating the maze of a tomb proved easy enough. When they reached a dead end, Arierra figured they made it to the right spot.

"Hey, this is it. The secret entrance to the hidden cavern is in here. Just let me get my bearings." Vette walked over to the wall to examine it when suddenly Arierra heard someone shouting.

"Look out!"

Before she knew what was going on, two warblades clashed in front of her. Klemral to her left, Vemrin to her right.

"Klemral! How dare you interfere! This business is far beyond you!" Vemrin raged.

"I'd be dead if it wasn't for her! I'm not going to let you stab her in the back!" Klemral shouted. Arierra drew her blade and pressed against Vemrin aside her ally.

"Thank you, Klemral. You saved my life."

"It's the least I could do," Klemral said. Even two against one, Vemrin was barely driven back. With an unnatural scream, Vemrin unleashed a wave of Force energy and blasted Arierra back.

"No, the least you could do is die!" Vemrin kneed Klemral in the groin and swiftly impaled him through the chest. Klemral fell to the floor, dead. Arierra looked on in horror. Had the Force lead her to this? Had the Force willed Klemral's death?

Ashara's voice rang in her mind: There is no death, there is only the Force.

Klemral died protecting a friend. He died a hero. He was at peace.

"The fool must've spotted me following you. Too bad his warning will do you no good. It ends now. Once I kill you, the slave girl will show me the forbidden cave, and I will claim the lightsaber and my rightful place as Lord Baras' apprentice!"

Arierra pleaded with him. "Don't let it come to this. I will kill you if I have to." Vemrin spit at the ground at her words of warning.

"My passions run deeper than yours!" he shouted. "I am the true essence of what it is to be Sith! My legacy has suffered long enough! After today you will be forgotten!"

"Are you here to talk, or here to fight?" Arierra prodded. He rushed towards her, his warblade flying fast and hard. Arierra was on the defensive, deflecting and parrying every strike. Vemrin was a monster, his slashes coming harder and harder with each swing. She was starting to lose her footing when Vemrin stumbled forward, yelling in pain. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Vette throwing rocks at Vemrin.

Arierra took the opportunity and slashed low, gashing Vemrin's leg and forcing him to the ground. Vemrin winced in pain again as a rock came flying from the edge of the cavern and struck him in the head. Arierra kicked away Vemrin's blade.

"Yield," Arierra commanded.

"Becoming Baras' apprentice was my destiny. Did I come this far and overcome such adversity only to be proven unworthy?" he asked quietly, unsure that he wanted the answer.

"Don't be too hard on yourself. You've been a worthy opponent," Arierra admitted.

"Shut up! There is only victory or death! I refuse to life a lesser life. Kill me! I will not accept mercy! Unlike you, I am true Sith to the very end!" Arierra slashed downwards, and Vemrin fell to the floor, unmoving.

"Wow. Nice work," Vette said as she stepped closer.

"Glad to impress you," Arierra said, deactivating her ancient warblade for the last time.

"Come on, the secret entrance is right here." Vette pressed a stone outcropping and very slowly, a sliding stone door opened to reveal a small chamber beyond a false wall.

"Uh, you're welcome!" Vette said.

"Thank you," Arierra said. "For this, and the rock. You have good aim."

"It's nice to be acknowledged. Thanks," Vette said. 

The secret chamber was rather unremarkable: the only thing of note was a sarcophagus in the center of the room, presumably an ancient apprentice of Naga Sadow. She reached out with the Force and tore the lid off the coffin. It was heavy and landed on the ground with a loud thud. 

Moving that with my mind felt like nothing at all. I'm getting stronger, she thought. She extended her arm and grasped for the saber, lying next to a dusty old skeleton. The hilt shook, rattled, and shot out of the coffin and into her outstretched hand. The metal was cold, and the design was rather clunky, but it was the best thing in the galaxy. A tingle of nerves run down her spine, and she couldn't help but grin from ear to ear. Finally, she held a real lightsaber in her hands. 

She pressed the big red button and the saber ignited with that familiar flare, throwing the dim room into a bloody red. The constant hum filled the cavern walls, echoing back to create a symphony of reverberation. She slashed through the air, the sensation wildly different than using a practice blade.

All the physical weight was in the hilt. The beam was light, and had a different kind of weight. She felt the Force holding the lightsaber together,  weaved in and out of every single individual piece of the hilt, extending to the edge of the glowing red blade, all originating from the kyber crystal inside.

She slashed downward and took off a chunk of the coffin. She expected to meet resistance but felt none. It was a clean slice. She pressed the red button on the hilt again to deactivate the saber, and the humming stopped. The cavern was only filled with the sound of her excited breathing. It would be best to stop now before she cut off her own arm. It would take a while to get used to how a real lightsaber handled. Arierra left her warblade in the coffin and exited the last of the ancient Sith tombs once and for all.

 

Arierra was soon once again outside in the glaring Korriban sun. Using the Force, she had picked up the sentry's acolyte friend's body and placed it outside where the Sentry could properly take care of it.

"You found him! The poor man..."

"He got torn up pretty badly in there," Arierra said quietly. "I'm sorry for your loss."

"He was so brave and ready to prove himself...His father is—was—Nomen Fal, one of the dark honor guards. You'll find him outside the Chamber of the Dark Council where he stands guard. I'm sure he'll be grateful to know his son's fate. Thank you. It's good to know that there are more feelings embraced by the Sith than just hate and fury."

 

On the elevator ride up to the Dark Council chambers, Arierra felt palpable dread rising in the pit of her stomach. Vette must've felt it too and was whistling uncomfortably. As soon as they reached the top level, they heard a voice.

"You don't belong here. You stand before the Chamber of the Dark Council, and this floor is off-limits to all who are not Lords of the Sith," a guard warned. "If you are not on official business, you will leave now." Arierra's fight or flight instincts kicked into overdrive, far beyond even her fights with the Marka Ragnos beast or Vemrin, but she pressed onward until she was face to face with Nomen Fal.

"Wow, this looks like a nice place to hang out all day. How do I land your job?" she asked, trying her best to hide her fear.

"You kill more people than you ever knew were alive, and when you are done you—I sense you are here about my son's death?" Whatever he was feeling, he didn't look too upset. Merely slightly disappointed, as if Arierra were updating him on a case of bad weather.

"He was such a weak boy. He shames me in death as he shamed me in life. When I heard of his death, I could not leave my post. Honor forbade it. But I would like to know what happened in there."

Arierra was already deep into the viper's pit. She decided to take a chance. "Tell me about what happens around here, first. Must be pretty crazy, right?"

Nomen Fal sighed and recited a line he had probably said a hundred times to curious acolytes all wanting to know the goings-on of the Sith elite: "This is where the Dark Council meets, where Sith politics play out, where the Emperor issues his decrees, and where lives are destroyed with the flick of a wrist. Satisfied? Now, tell me. Where did you find his body? Did my pathetic son even make it past the first steps in the end...was he Sith?"

"He died valiantly, deep in the tombs. He was nearly Sith," Arierra lied.

"Then he died well? I suppose my son had more of me in his heart than I had ever considered possible. With this news, you have brought me a peace I didn't think possible. Thank you. I will have him buried in honor. Now leave me."

The elevator ride down to the lower levels of the Academy was somehow more tense than the ride up. Outside of Baras' office, Arierra was once again stopped in her tracks.

Is this an official rule of the Academy? Nobody can go anywhere without being ambushed at each door?

This time it was Eskella, the late Overseer Tremel's daughter.

"Murderer!" Eskella cried, as she whipped out her warblade. "My father was a staunch traditionalist and he was especially hard on me. But he's my blood. Did you think you could kill him and get away with it!?"

"Who told you I killed your father?" Arierra asked, not wanting yet another fight.

"Everybody says so. The whole place knows you killed him. And now you have to die!" Eskella growled.

"Well, I suppose the whole place can't be wrong," Arierra mumbled. It was a quick fight. Eskella was talented, but her practice blade didn't hold up against a real lightsaber. Arierra might've put more strength into her slashes than she needed to, still used to the weight of the old warblade. Walking carefully over her corpse, Arierra once again entered Darth Baras' chambers.

"I am beside myself. Not only did you get the Twi'lek to cooperate, but you completed the task and claimed the ancient lightsaber!" Baras exclaimed excitedly. "Vemrin was not in my chamber as I instructed. I take it he sought to stop you and claim the weapon as his own?"

"Regrettably, he wouldn't take "no" for an answer. I was forced to kill him," Arierra explained.

"Bravo! I see you may indeed become one of the strongest Sith in the galaxy. Your trials are over. You are now my apprentice."

Arierra bowed low. "I am your humble servant, Master."

"Rise, my apprentice," Baras commanded. "This is only the beginning. With you as my right hand, we shall strike fear into the Empire's enemies. I must convene with the Emperor and inform him of your progress. This shuttle pass will take you to Dromund Kaas. Meet me at the Citadel there."

"Tell the Emperor I said hello," Arierra joked. Now that she was officially Darth Baras' apprentice and could finally leave the Academy, she felt a huge weight lift off her shoulders.

"I'm sure he'll be thrilled. One other thing, before you go. Take the Twi'lek slave as my gift. Do with her as you wish. If she'll be of use, then by all means, take her to Dromund Kaas. Now, leave me. I still have work to finish up here on Korriban."

 

Once they arrived at the Imperial Fleet's Vaiken Spacedock, the first thing Arierra did was find the closest cantina to get a strong drink. Vette sat down next to Arierra as she ordered two "Fuzzy Tauntaun" shots. Vette drummed her fingers on the bar and after a minute of awkward silence, looked up slowly at her Sith master.

"So...hey. I've been thinking...maybe you want to take this shock collar off? You know, as a sign of thanks for my hard work on Korriban? Not that I don't enjoy the perpetual fear of electrocution."

"You've earned it, Vette," Arierra said, waving her hand. The collar deactivated and unlocked, allowing Vette to take it off. “It is not freedom, though.”

"Wow, now I feel stupid for not asking sooner!" she said with a halfhearted laugh. "Don't worry. I'll try not to give you a reason to slap that thing back on."

"Neither the collar nor your slavery were my idea," Arierra said quietly as the bartender droid served up two shots of golden liquid with little virtual umbrellas.

"I hear you. Just another day in the life of the Empire, huh? Well, I'm not in prison or collared, and it's sort of miserable weather...so I guess we should...uh, what happens now?" Vette asked with wide eyes. The poor girl was hopeful and frightened all at once. Her entire future hinged on a Sith’s temperament. Arierra grabbed one of the Fuzzy Tauntauns and placed it in front of Vette.

"Come on, drink up. Time to celebrate!" Arierra and Vette clinked their glasses together and downed their shots. Arierra was more graceful than Vette, who started a coughing fit and almost spit up her drink.

"Ugh! How do you drink this swill?" Vette asked. Arierra laughed but ignored the question. She looked Vette square in her eye and stared. Arierra had been going and going and going. It was nice to finally sit still, catch her breath, and do absolutely nothing even if it was just for a short moment. She couldn't help but notice how beautiful Vette's violet eyes were. Vette squinted, giving Arierra a funny look.

"What happens now?” Arierra asked, keeping her gaze solely locked on Vette. “If you’d like, we can try this as partners. You and me, working together, taking down the galaxy. What do you think?" Vette’s eyes widened in surprise.

"What? Err...well, of course! Me and my buddy the Sith! Nobody's gonna pick on me at school!” Vette looked down in embarrassment at her lame joke, but Arierra simply smiled at the Twi’lek. “Sorry. Let's just get going, yeah?"

 

Chapter Text

Darth Baras wouldn’t be on Dromund Kaas for another day and a half, so Arierra had some time to kill. She wasn’t used to having much shore leave, so she decided she’d show Vette around Vaiken Spacedock. They shopped around the merchant quadrant for a while, and Arierra let Vette pick out a pair of blasters. While Arierra had never been sentimental about a weapon before, Vette excitedly named them “Anarchy” and “Mischief.”

Arierra wasn’t quite sure why Vette had picked these two blasters of all that were for sale; they were old, and all scratched up and worn down from extensive combat use. Surely there were better models out there, but Vette seemed to like them.

They went down to the lower level of Vaiken and found a practice range where Vette could try out her new toys. After a few pulls of the triggers, there were smoking holes where someone had strapped pictures of various Jedi to the practice dummies.

“Wow. I suck,” Vette said lamely, gazing at the inaccurate scorch marks. “I guess my time in the Korriban jails have made me a little rusty. But shooting is just like riding a monocycle. You never really forget; and picking it back up is pretty easy.”

“Mind if I give it a try?” Arierra asked.

“Go ahead.” Vette handed her Mischief.

Arierra held it steady, both hands gripping tight, lining up her target.

“Are you just gonna stand there looking cool, or are you actually gonna shoot?” Vette asked. Arierra ignored her and kept her sights on the target: a rather large portrait of a menacing alien Jedi brandishing a double-sided saber. The Sith acolyte robes she was wearing were too breezy. The fabric tickled her skin, sapped her concentration. How can anyone fight in these robes? She exhaled and pulled the trigger. The shot went right between the Jedi’s eyes.

“Wow. Nice shot!” Vette said, for once without a hint of sarcasm. “And I thought I was talented.”

“Thanks, but it’s not so much talent as it is practice. I’ve logged a lot of time on the range during my time in Imperial Intelligence.” Arierra handed Mischief back to Vette. “Your turn.”

“I don’t have any formal training,” Vette said as she lit up a picture of a Nautolan Jedi with a green lightsaber. “But I have a lot of practice from back when I was a pirate.”

“Your aim is off because you’re used to wearing an eyepatch, is that it?” Arierra teased.

“No eyepatches, no peg legs,” Vette said quietly. “Just a rowdy gang of misfits.” Arierra felt the mood turn sour.

“I’m sorry. It sounds like a rough time. I won’t pry any further.”

“I appreciate that. I’ll probably tell you all about it someday, just…not right now.” Vette holstered the pistols. “So, we got me these babies. What about you? Are you gonna buy anything for yourself?”

“Maybe. Nothing’s caught my eye yet.”

They rode the elevator back up to the main floor in a comfortable silence. Arierra smiled slightly as she felt Vette’s unease slip away, a weight off her shoulders. This was the first real time they’d spent without any amount of discomfort. For the first time in a long time, Vette felt completely safe.

Until the doors opened to reveal a Sith Lord in elaborate blood-red armor waiting impatiently for the elevator. They slipped past him and into the boisterous main deck. They made their way to the entrance of the taxi shuttle service when they were stopped by a small mousey-looking man in a formal outfit, holding a rather large box.

“Excuse me, Ms. Sarrak? I have been instructed by my master to wait here for you, and to deliver a parcel upon your arrival,” the man said.

“Exactly how long have you been standing around waiting for me?” Arierra asked. “And why not send a courier droid? This is rather all very suspicious, so you’d better start talking, right now.”

“I did not mean to offend you, my Lord,” the courier said, trembling before her. “I was told only that the parcel—the contents of which are unknown to me, I swear I haven’t looked inside—contains highly sensitive materials that should not fall into the wrong hands.” The courier handed over the box to Arierra and bowed deeply.

Arierra raised an eyebrow at him. “What do you expect, a tip? You’ve done your job, now leave.”

“Right away my Lord!”

Vette followed Arierra to a secluded side hallway and into a rather large restroom and showers area. It was covered in graffiti and looked like it hadn’t seen cleaning droids in a long time. It was dark, thanks to only one working light in the ceiling tiles. Arierra locked the door tight with a wave of her hand.

“I used to do quite a few sketchy deals here back in my Intelligence days. It’s a black-market meeting spot. Imperial officials know all about it of course, but if it maintains minor traffic and nothing truly dangerous goes on, the Empire looks the other way. Illegal weapon modifications or spice is a small price to pay for quality underworld intel. It’s also one of the only few places on this whole station without monitoring devices.”

Arierra opened the lid and almost dropped the box in shock. The first thing she noticed was a tiny piece of paper that simply read “For Ari”. It was her mother’s handwriting.

Underneath the note was a folded set of clothes. It was her old Imperial military officer uniform. Her mother must’ve pulled a few strings to get ahold of it. There was something else in the box, underneath the uniform. She handed the outfit for Vette to hold, and when she looked back down in the bottom of the box, her heart skipped a beat.

Two silver lightsabers lay parallel at the bottom, each etched with identical beautifully carved patterns. She felt tears coming, and for once she didn’t fight back and remain stoic. She slowly sunk to her knees, placing the box on the ground. She hung her head and cried silently.

After a minute, Vette finally decided to pipe up.

“Uh…are you okay there?” She patted Arierra’s shoulder awkwardly.

“Yeah,” Arierra said, wiping away the tears from her face. “I’m okay. These lightsabers belonged to my mother. She was a Jedi padawan.” She unclipped the clunky old Sith lightsaber from the Korriban tombs and dropped it into the box on the floor. Someone else could have it if they wanted it. She rose to her feet, gripping both of her mother’s lightsabers as tightly as she could, as if letting them go meant certain death. She raised up both the lightsabers to chest height and ignited them. A flash of brilliant blue lit up the room, with two signature singing hums, and Arierra smiled.

“My father once told me that when they first met, my mother wouldn’t shut up about how she was the best duelist in her class. Most of the Padawans only used one lightsaber. Ashara Zavros was so good, she could use two at the same time. From what she’s told me, it’s extremely difficult. It takes an enormous amount of practice. I hope I can live up to her one day.” Arierra retracted the blue energy blades back into the hilts and attached them to her belt. She took the uniform from Vette and quickly changed out of her Sith robes into something more her speed. The familiar snug gray Imperial Officer uniform filled her with a comfortable confidence. She felt like she was back to her old self a little bit. She’d just traded in blaster pistols and sniper rifles for lightsabers and the Force.

“Wow, you look…” Vette was at a loss for words.

“Dashing?” Arierra offered.

“Yeah, I guess that’s one way of putting it. So, I gotta ask. I know you used to be a soldier, then a spy, and all that…but why the stuck-up uniform? You’ll blend right in with the rest of the Force-less jackboots. Don’t Sith want everyone to know who’s in charge?”

Vette had a point. While other Sith dressed to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies—or because tradition apparently demanded long flowy robes—Arierra would dress to impress. Neat, clean, and formal. A reminder of where she had come from, and who she was fighting for.

“Too many Sith treat their comrades like nothing more than dogs to be commanded and scolded. I want to let my fellow Imperials know that despite my power, I’m still one of them.”

“So… you’re a modest Sith? That’s a new one.”

“Something like that” Arierra said with a smirk. “Come on, lets get going. We have a shuttle to catch if we want to get to Dromund Kaas on time.”

 

They left the black-market bathroom and entered to the shuttle departures dock. An alien was standing in the hallway, trying to get her attention. She preemptively activated her translator.

“Greetings, my lord. On your way to the capital?” He didn’t pause for an answer. “There is a shuttle to Dromund Kaas. Nice for solo traveler. Normally takes several days. However, Darth Baras has also arranged a berth for you on the Black Talon. It’s an Imperial transport and is considerably faster. The Black Talon goes through very dangerous territory though.”

“What do you think, Vette?” Arierra asked. Vette raised an eyebrow in surprise.

“You’re asking me? Well, we’re pretty much always in danger, and if it’ll get us off this stuffy station faster, I say go for it. What’s the worst that can happen?” Vette shrugged.

Arierra nodded in confirmation to the alien valet.

“Very well. Safe travels, my lord.”

Arierra leaned in close to whisper to Vette. “I can’t believe you actually said that. You know you’ve just doomed us to a horrible fate?”

They walked through the airlock and boarded the Black Talon. Up ahead was a woman in an Imperial Officer’s uniform addressing two armed guards. Arierra approached them and waited for her to finish.

“Well tell the captain that I’ll be back on the bridge as soon as I’ve done his errand.” 

“Yes, sir!”

The officer turned to Arierra. “You there. What are you standing around for? Get back to your station immediately or I’ll have you demoted so fast you’ll be cleaning the—” she froze solid when she saw the lightsabers clinging to Arierra’s belt. Arierra crossed her arms and shifted her weight, not intimidated in the least.

“My…my Lord! I’m so sorry, I didn’t recognize you. It’s so…good to have you aboard!” Arierra could feel the officer’s fear spiking. “I’m Lieutenant Sylas, second-in-command of the Black Talon. We’re your ride to Dromund Kaas. It’s not a comfortable ship, but as transports go, it does its job. On our present course, we should arrive at the capital within a day. Won’t be any trouble. I should…add on behalf of everyone…It’s an honor to service the Sith and the Korriban Academy. Consider yourself our guest.”

“Your respect for the Sith is admirable, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, my lord. I’m the Empire’s loyal servant. I won’t keep you any further. When we arrive in the Dromund system, you’ll be the first to be informed. In the meantime, your droid is in the conference room. We picked it up with the upgrades from Geonosis; when we docked here, it mentioned your name.”

Genuine confusion broke Arierra’s cold and commanding mask. “Sorry, I don’t know what droid you’re talking about.”

“Oh? The machine asked for you, so I assumed you were the owner. My mistake. In any case, it seems someone wants to get in touch. The conference room is down the hall. I’ll be on the bridge.” She walked down the corridor and the door shut behind her.

Arierra felt a sick feeling in her gut. Very few people in the galaxy knew her situation. Arierra and Vette located the conference room, and sure enough a protocol droid was waiting for them.

“Sith Apprentice Arierra Sarrak: Identity confirmed. Good day, I am advanced protocol unit NR-02. My functions are diplomacy, translation, manslaughter, and calumniation. I have an urgent message for you from my master. Please stand by for delivery.”

Arierra crossed her arms. “What makes you think I care what your master has to say?”

“I am certain you will be interested. Anyone of importance travelling through Imperial space must listen to my master.” Arierra felt a bit of relief. If the droid was casting a wide net, it would most likely not belong to her father. The droid continued. “This is unit NR-02 to Grand Moff Kilran. You are now in contact with the Black Talon.” The holoprojector lit up and standing in front of them was a blue translucent hologram of an imposing man in a highly decorated uniform.

“Well, so I am. And it seems you’ve brought me just the person I’ve been looking for. My name is Rycus Kilran. I’m commander of the Fifth Fleet, second to the Minister of War, and—my personal favorite— the so-called Butcher of Coruscant. It’s so nice to finally meet you, Agent Sarrak.” Kilran spoke in an oddly threateningly casual way.

“You speak to the apprentice of Darth Baras,” Arierra corrected. “Explain this interruption.” While she maintained her cold composure, on the inside she was smiling. It was a nice change of pace to have the authority to challenge a Moff.

“Six hours ago, the Republic engaged in an illegal border skirmish on the edges of Imperial territory. One enemy warship escaped. That warship, the Brentaal Star, is carrying a passenger of vital strategic importance. Yours is the only vessel placed to intercept,” Kilran explained.

“This passenger the Brentaal Star is carrying. Who is it?” Arierra asked, her curiosity piqued.

“The warship’s passenger is code-named “The General”. We don’t know his identity, but the Republic believes he possesses military secrets. I trust the reports. The General must be captured or killed. Captain Orzik, the man commanding your transport, doesn’t share my enthusiasm. He’s disobeyed my orders to attack. Feel free to show him what the Empire does to cowards. Then commandeer his ship, find the Brentaal Star, and deal with the General,” Kilran commanded.

“Right now, I’m more interested in getting to Dromund Kaas,” Arierra said.

“Oh, I can sympathize,” Kilran said with a cool smile. “But I’m sure I can convince Darth Baras to forgive a bit of tardiness.” This man just wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“The General will be dead or in custody by day’s end. If he’s not, I can assure you, your ship will never reach port.” Before Arierra could counter, the transmission cut off. NR-02 stepped forward.

“I will lead the way to the bridge. Once Captain Orzik is disposed and our hijacking is complete, we may proceed to the Brentaal Star.” The droid moved forward and left Arierra no choice but to follow.

“This is insanity!” she muttered under her breath as she and Vette followed the droid to a small blockade of soldiers.

“Halt!” an Imperial guard commanded as they got a little too close. “My lord, this is a restricted area. Captain Orzik’s command. You’ll have to leave immediately.”

“I am Sith, I go where I please. Now, I suggest you back off before someone gets hurt,” Arierra growled.

“This is the command deck entry hatch. No one is allowed in until we reach our destination,” the guard said, standing his ground.

“Time is limited. We must proceed to the bridge immediately,” Kilran’s droid warned.

“Our orders were to treat any approach as an attack. You need to take your droid and move it,” the guard said. Arierra let out a sigh and stepped backwards slowly. Vette followed suit.

“Fine. I’m stepping away. There’s no need to be nervous,” Arierra said softly.

“Our window to intercept the Brentaal Star is rapidly closing. Engaging expediency measures,” NR-02 said as it drew a blaster rifle from a storage component from its back.

“Blasted droid!” Arierra yelled as it fired at the soldiers.

“Blasters out! Attack!” the guard shouted. In a flash of blue light, the soldiers fell to the floor, dead. In the back of her mind, she thought it was a funny stroke of fate that the first life she would take with her mother’s lightsaber would be an Imperial one.

“I didn’t sign up to attack our own men!” Arierra shouted at the droid. “Damn you Kilran, these men were just doing their jobs!”

“If you are concerned about the loss of life, I assure you, the deaths of all crewmembers will be strategically insignificant,” NR-02 said as it pressed on forward.

“Blasters on stun, Vette,” Arierra commanded. She did her best not to kill any more Imperials on their way to the bridge, but the droid was making it very difficult. They reached a large central door leading to the bridge. The door opened to reveal a squad of twelve heavily armored Imperial commandos blocking the way, rifles locked and loaded. Before the crazy droid or the commandos could fire, Arierra reached out with the Force and flung the group to the left side of the bridge with a blast of telekinetic energy. They’d be bruised and dizzy, but they were still alive. The droid marched up to the very front where a large front window showed a beautiful view of the stars ahead.

“All marines have been neutralized. Scanning for additional threats.”

A junior officer at one of the computers stood up from his workstation with a rightfully panicked look on his face.

“What’s going on, sir?”

The Captain turned and with a grim frown, motioned for the man to sit back down. “Stay calm, Ensign. Everyone stay calm.”

“No threats found. The bridge is now secure,” the droid said.

“Call the medbay—I want help for the injured. Now!” Arierra commanded, hoping she had some facsimile of control left.

“Acknowledged. Medical assistance will be properly rendered,” NR-02 replied.

“I do appreciate that,” the Captain said. “I’m Captain Orzik. I’m pretty sure I know what this is about. For the record, I take complete responsibility for my actions.”

“I understand Captain. If nothing else, that should make it easier on the crew,” Arierra said with a short nod.

“I’m glad it’s worth something. You’re here because of the Moff, aren’t you? He must want the Brentaal Star pretty badly. Or maybe he just hates me. The Black Talon would be destroyed chasing a battleship. I fought in the war before, and I’ll fight again, but I don’t do suicide missions.”

Arierra took a step forward, and Orzik gulped, readying himself for a lightsaber through the gut.

“I’m not looking to make a martyr of anyone. We can complete this mission and survive,” Arierra said.

“I expect you believe that. I see it differently,” Orzik said with a grim look. “You managed to hijack one ship and that’s certainly impressive. But taking on the Brentaal Star is something else altogether. I might be able to get us close, but then you’d have to board it, fight an army of Republic soldiers, and somehow find the general. It’s unacceptable.”

“We don’t have a choice—those were Moff Kilran’s instructions. So, if we’re going to survive, we need to work together,” Arierra explained.

“I see…you’re as much a victim here as I am, aren’t you? Damn Kilran and his fleet! All right, I’m not ready to be branded a traitor just yet. We’ll get the General. Prepare to jump to lightspeed,” Orzik commanded. The ship lurched forward and a tense ten seconds passed.

“Emerging from hyperspace now,” one of the Ensigns reported. “One Thranta-class warship on the scanners. Powering up—enemy is firing! Turbolasers, missiles, and what looks like transport pods? I’m not sure—”

“Evasive maneuvers!” Orzik commanded. “Keep the pods at a distance. They look harmless but they’ll latch onto the hull and cut at us with sabotage droids.”

“Sir! Three shuttles on an intercept course!”

“An assault party. We don’t have sufficient defenses to keep them from landing.”

“What do you suggest we do, Captain?” Arierra asked.

“Once those vessels make it to the shuttle bay, Republic troops will swarm us. Our security forces won’t be enough to contain the enemy boarding party. Once we get to corridor-to-corridor fighting, we’ll never get back on the offensive. If you can get to the shuttle bay and deal with the Republic troops, we can handle things up here. Otherwise…”

“I’m on it,” Arierra said. “Vette, with me. Set blasters back to kill.”

A warning siren blared and Arierra heard an automated voice.

“Intruder alert: Sublevel Three.”

They rode the central elevator to sublevel three and the doors opened to reveal a transport pod embedded into the hull of the ship, with Republic assault droids climbing out. Arierra activated her lightsabers and drew on the Force, leaping forward into the fray—higher, further, faster than humanly possible. She twirled her blue blades, effortlessly cutting the droids to pieces.

The whole ship shook as another Republic pod slammed into the side of the Black Talon. The pod opened to reveal more droids. Arierra readied herself to charge the droids when she saw a grenade fly overhead and land in the middle of the droids, driving shrapnel into the horde.

BOOM!” Vette yelled excitedly as the droids fell to the floor.

“Where did you get grenades!?” Arierra asked suspiciously. “I certainly didn’t buy them for you.”

“I might’ve picked some up from a few unsuspecting Imp soldiers now and again,” Vette said with a guilty smile. The camaraderie was interrupted when a third pod connected with the Talon. This time it was only one droid—a big heavily armored war droid. But before it could even charge up its blaster fire, Arierra flung her righthand saber forward. Guiding it with the Force, she spun it around and sliced clean through the droid like butter. The blue energy beam retracted and the lightsaber flew back to her, smacking into her outstretched hand. She closed her fingers around the saber hilt and smiled.

“Neat trick,” Vette said. “For a second there I thought you were gonna cut off your own hand!”

A voice erupted from overhead speakers in the corridor. “This is the Captain. If you can hear this, we need you on the bridge.”

They returned and found the droid waiting next to the Orzik.

“Please stand alert. Grand Moff Kilran’s representative has returned.”

“I see you took care of the Republic assault. Welcome back to the bridge,” Orzik said. “We’ve survived the first wave of attacks. Things will be calm until we enter fighter range—another minute, maybe two.”

Another Ensign approached them.

“Transmission coming in! Long range. It’s a message, but it’s not from the Brentaal Star,” she reported. The Ensign looked at Captain Orzik, waiting for a response. An awkward few seconds passed.

 

“I don’t appreciate dramatic pauses,” Arierra said.

“I’ll patch the message through immediately!” The ensign stepped forward to a long-range holoprojector and typed in a code. A translucent copy of a female Jedi popped up, wearing simple cloth armor with steel armored boots and leather bracers. Arierra could tell this was a woman who had seen her fair share of battles.

“This is Jedi Grand Master Satele Shan hailing unidentified Imperial vessel. I’m en route to your location with sixteen Republic vessels. I’m asking you to retreat before more lives are lost,” the Jedi said.

Arierra held up her hand to silence everyone before they could say anything. Her mother had told her about Satele Shan. She was a legend among the Jedi, and the leader of the Jedi Council itself. If she was here, this situation would need to be handled delicately. Arierra bowed politely.

“You honor me, Master Jedi. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m glad to hear a voice of reason,” Satele said. Even through the fuzzy hologram and the vast distance, Arierra could see the relief in her face. “Let us end this conflict together. The Brentaal Star is under my protection. Our convoy was ambushed and I sent the Star ahead. We will reunite.”

Kilran again. The Black Talon didn’t just happen to be the closest Imperial vessel near the Brentaal Star. This was all set up from the start.

Satele continued. “I just crippled three Imperial dreadnaughts. I don’t wish to destroy you. The peace between the Republic and Empire is fragile enough already.”

“We’re only after one man,” Arierra said. “Tell the Brentaal Star to hand over the General. No one needs to be hurt.”

“The General has a role to play with the Republic,” Satele countered. “Incidents like this are happening across the galaxy, but only because we let them. Leave the Brentaal Star to me. If you don’t, then may the Force be with you, because the men and women aboard that ship can hold you off until we arrive, and you will be defeated.”

“I’m sorry it has to come to this, Master Satele, but we will retrieve our man. End transmission.”

“Affirmative,” the Ensign said. “Entering fighter range. The Star is launching its first squadron.”

“It’s time for us to do the same,” Captain Orzik ordered. He turned to Arierra. “I assume you’ll lead the boarding party to go after the General?”

“Whatever is necessary to finish this.”

“There’s one other thing,” Orzik added. “I promised you my help, so I brought you some supplies from the cargo bay. Someone on Dromund Kaas may be disappointed when they don’t receive their delivery, but I thought our situation took precedence.” He handed Arierra and Vette what looked like state-of-the-art combat adrenals.

“You’re doing well, Captain. Continue, and we may make it out of this,” Arierra said with a small smile.

“Thank you. We’re all doing our best here.”

NR-02 spoke up. “I advise that you proceed to the shuttle bay. The flight to the Brentaal Star may be hazardous but Grand Moff Kilran has complete faith in—”

“Oh, will you just shut up, droid?” Arierra growled. NR-02 crumpled to the ground under the weight of the Force. Arierra and Vette entered an automated shuttle and were ejected from the Black Talon. A tense minute passed by until they landed inside the Brentaal Star docking bay. They cut a path through Republic droids and security guards, with Vette shouting “Pew! Pew! Pew!” and “Boom!” every so often.

“I like your sound effects,” Arierra said as they approached a blinking communications table.

“Really? Most people I fight alongside think I make too much noise,” Vette said.

“Don’t worry what the others think. I think it’s cute,” Arierra said with a sly smile. It was hard to tell with all the flashing warning lights going off and the blue pigment of the Twi’lek’s skin, but Arierra thought she saw Vette blush.

They reached a communications table where a small hologram of NR-02 was blinking in and out.

“This is protocol unit NR-02. I hope you’re receiving this message clearly, and that your flight was free of incident. Please hold for security coordinator Ensign Brukarra.” The droid was replaced by the Ensign who had notified them of the incoming pods earlier.

“The marines are on their way. They’ll follow you in and hold each junction you secure. Try not to take too long. We’re not a military ship. What you have is all you’re getting.”

“Consider me warned.” Arierra nodded. NR-02 popped back up.

“I’ve been scanning the Brentaal Star’s communications and security forces appear to be moving to protect the escape pods. It is extremely likely the crew is attempting to evacuate the General. You must retrieve him or eliminate him before—”

“I don’t need a droid telling me how to do things,” Arierra interrupted.

“Understood. I’m simply looking after Grand Moff Kilran’s interests. I’ll be in contact if the situation changes.”

Arierra found resistance from dozens of Republic security officers as she made her way towards the shuttle bay, but she cut them down easily. Vette picked off targets as Arierra dived into the thick of battle, pushing forward as fast as she could.

 

They finally reached a large heavily plated door, sealed tightly, that led to the escape pod hangar bay. Arierra took a moment to collect herself. She reached out and pushed with all her might, guiding the Force through her arms, and the door burst open. Across the room, the General was hurrying away. Before Arierra could catch up to him, a red skinned Twi’lek stepped in her path.

“Halt where you are! I am Yadira Ban, padawan of the Jedi Order. I was sent to protect the General and you will not pass!” she exclaimed, readying a green lightsaber in a defensive position.

“Isn’t ‘padawan’ another word for ‘apprentice’?” Arierra asked. “You’re not even a real Jedi.”

“I will be,” Yadira replied. “I’ve assembled my lightsaber. My final trial is to face a Sith in combat.”

“That won’t go well for you. I’m giving you the option to surrender. I only want the General. Give me what I want and the rest of you will be spared,” Arierra offered.

“I cannot accept that. A Jedi does not surrender the innocent into the hands of evil. But I intend to drive you back, meter by meter, just as the Republic pushed the Sith Empire back into the dark of the Galaxy!”

“Then there’s no way we can settle this peacefully?” Arierra asked.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Yadira said softly.

“Very well then.”

Fast as lightning, Yadira Ban leapt towards Arierra, her green lightsaber coming down hard. Arierra dodged to the side and ignited her righthand saber, parrying another strike that came just as quickly. Arierra noticed Yadira’s eyes widen slightly at the unusual color of her lightsaber. Clearly, she expected a Sith to wield a red saber.

Yadira slashed again and again, and Arierra could feel the anger in the young Twi’lek’s heart. Yadira gathered up Force energy and channeled it into her blade, slamming it down on top of Arierra, giving extra weight to her next series of swings. They were moving too fast, too closely together, for Vette to get a good shot in. Arierra could feel herself start to become unbalanced and decided to switch up her tactics.

She’d never fought lightsaber vs lightsaber before, and went into this battle cautiously, wielding one blade with two hands in a form like Yadira’s. She reached out and pushed the Force forward, stunning the Twi’lek and giving her time to arm herself with her second lightsaber. The fight changed pace rapidly. Yadira clearly had no experience fighting against an opponent who dual wielded, and after a series of rapid strikes, Yadira was face down on the ground, dead. The General was almost inside an escape pod when Arierra and Vette caught up to him. He was holding onto his side and breathing heavily, looking seriously injured already.

“You can put aside your weapons. I won’t try to run. Besides, I doubt I could make it inside an escape pod without my intestines spilling out,” he wheezed.

“I take it you’re the General. Grand Moff Kilran sent me to find you,” Arierra explained.

“Kilran did? Of course. He would have the gall to send a transport to take on warship and succeed. I was a general in the Imperial military. Did they tell you that when they sent you here? Did they even know?”

“Well, you’re codenamed the General. That’s not very surprising. Why would you betray the Empire?”

“If you knew what I knew, you’d understand. If you knew what both sides were plotting, you wouldn’t be eager to restart this war. They’re building doomsday weapons. Shields that envelop planets. Missiles that darken suns. Republic and Empire are planning to raze worlds—annihilate civilizations. It will be unlike anything the Galaxy’s seen since the Great Hyperspace War. And it’s too late to stop it—the so-called peace is already lost.”

“If that’s true, why defect to the Republic?”

“There’s no place for me in the Empire anymore. I thought my last act might be to even the odds— create a stalemate. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. You have me then. My stomach full of blood and my implant full of cybernetic secrets and stolen plans. What will you do?”

“I’m going to bring you to my ship. From there you’ll be transported to Dromund Kaas and taken into Imperial custody.”

“Where I’ll be tortured or executed, or at best placed in cell for the rest of my life. Still, there’s nowhere in the Galaxy where I could truly hide. I will follow you.”

Arierra established contact with the Black Talon, and a holoimage of Captain Orzik appeared in front of her.

“Captain Orzik here. I understand you’re on your way back. I assume congratulations are in order. Our marines are being recalled to the Black Talon. As soon as you’re aboard we’ll jump to lightspeed. Republic reinforcements could arrive at any moment.”

“Prepare a holding cell. I’m bringing a prisoner.”

“The General? I’m sure the droid and Kilran will be pleased to have him alive. I’ll see you on the bridge. Orzik out.”

Though she was wary the whole journey back to the Talon, the General was true to his word and never once tried to escape.

“Well, the heroes of the day return. My men will take the General to the brig. Congratulations. I never expected the mission to go off this cleanly.”

“Grand Moff Kilran is eagerly awaiting your report. Shall I put him through?” NR-02 interrupted.

“It’s your command again, Orzik. Make the call,” Arierra said.

“Put the Grand Moff through,” Orzik commanded.

“How fortunate I could reach my friends aboard the Black Talon. The droid has been keeping me apprised of your work, but I very much wanted to hear from you. How did the attack go?” Kilran asked.

“There was a lot of blood shed today, Kilran. A lot of Imperial blood. I hope it was worth it,” Arierra said, crossing her arms dismissively.

“I’m quite certain it was,” he said with a smirk that made Arierra’s anger spike. “Blood is cheap, after all. You should be proud. This is only one of many operations we’re conducting across the galaxy. It’s a new beginning to the war. The General was one of the greatest weapons the Republic had—a defector!—and you’ve snatched him from enemy hands. I’ll remember this, and make sure you’re rewarded.”

“There won’t be a next time,” Arierra said.

“We’ll see about that if the day comes, won’t we? But my words hardly matter. Soon you’ll be joining us on the homeworld once again. Enjoy the rest of your journey. Kilran out.”

The rest of the flight was rather uneventful, and both Arierra and Vette got a good night’s sleep in. When they awoke, they were both ready for the upcoming challenges they’d face on the capital planet of the Empire.

 

Chapter Text

Arierra and Vette exited the Black Talon at the Kaas City Spaceport and proceeded to check in at the visitor’s terminal. A scrawny man carefully approached them and bowed his head. He had dark circles under his eyes. The poor man looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. His body shook with fear, sputtering his words until he was barely comprehensible.

“You’re the one, yes. Not like the scabs that exited the shuttle with you. You radiate power, Lord. I bow before you! I serve Darth Baras. He sent me to meet his new apprentice. I made sure I was here on time, I certainly did!”

“So I’m met. Now what?” Arierra asked.

“I’m just a slave who owes his every breath to the tolerance of Lord Baras. He said to introduce you to Dromund Kaas, and I take that seriously,” the slave said.

This is a man who could use a compliment every once in a while.

“That’s good. You have a strong survival instinct.”

“Thank you, kind Lord! I am seldom referred to as strong. Lord Baras ordered me to encourage you to explore Kaas City before reporting in to him. Imperials maintain the order, but they won’t bother you. When you’re ready, Lord Baras will meet you in his personal chambers, in the Sith Sanctum. You…uh…you will tell Lord Baras I was good, yes? That I served well?”

The poor bastard look like he was about to fall apart.

“You did exactly what you were told,” Arierra said simply, with a sad smile.

“You have my thanks, gentle juggernaut. I bow my head until you depart.” True to his word, he bowed and would not move. Vette followed quickly behind as Arierra continued forward to find a speeder taxi to take them to the city proper.

“Wow, what a weasel,” Vette remarked when they were finally out of earshot. “Dromund Kaas needs some pest control.” As sad as the man was, Arierra did agree that the over-the-top sniveling was quite annoying.

“I hope others in Baras’ operation have a little backbone,” Arierra said.

“Somehow, I doubt you’re the only one,” Vette remarked as they hopped into a taxi.

 

The Citadel tower was oppressively tall against the rest of the Kaas City skyline. She had been here quite often, but only inside Imperial Intelligence headquarters. Back in her Intelligence days, she often wondered what the inside of the Sith Sanctum looked like. Now she was going to find answers, and she wasn’t quite sure she’d like them.

Walking through the massive opening, she was greeted by brutally bright lights, and an enormous reactor vent in the middle of the floor. Peering down, it seemed to go on forever.

“Wow, nice lights. Walk in here and you get an instant headache,” Vette commented, mirroring Arierra’s thoughts. They continued on to Darth Baras’ office.

Baras had his back to them, studying a hieroglyphic carving. Slowly he turned to greet his new apprentice. Now she realized why some Sith chose to wear masks. She couldn’t read Baras at all, and it put her on edge.

“Not a minute too soon. Your timing is impeccable,” Baras said.

“Did it just get considerably colder?” Vette wondered aloud. Baras chuckled.

“I see you decided to keep the slave. I hope she amuses you. I trust you’ve been acquainting yourself with your new environs. Did my minion point you in the right direction?”

“His pointer finger was a bit twitchy,” Arierra remarked.

“A byproduct of constantly fearing for his life. But it keeps him in line, doing the trivial tasks that need tending to. I’m sure your Twi’lek has that in common with him.” Arierra stepped forward, in between Baras and Vette.

Not your place. Keep your mouth shut.

Baras continued. “Your responsibilities will mandate contact with my various minions. Meet my directives, and you may do as you will to anyone you encounter, adversary or ally.”

“You can trust that I’ll use good judgement, master.”

“I’ve painstakingly built a vast network of spies and operatives embedded throughout the Sith, Republic, and Jedi alike. I have fingers, eyes, and ears everywhere.” Arierra was taken aback by this admission.

“You’ve successfully infiltrated the Jedi Order?” she asked, almost unbelieving.

“Yes. My operatives are completely undetected, and I wish to keep it that way. I track our enemy—weakening and influencing them from within. Waiting to strike.”

Arierra narrowed her eyes but tried not to sound too accusatory. “And the Sith as well? Why don’t you trust your own allies?”

“A Sith has many rivals who seek to destroy him. We’re an opportunistic culture. We rise by dismantling those around and especially above us.” Arierra couldn’t see it, but she could practically feel him glaring at her through his mask, daring her to try something.

“So, which am I to be? A finger, eye, or ear?” she asked.

“You’re my enforcer: deployed to protect my interests, intimidate my rivals, and destroy my enemies. It’s time for your tenure to begin. A military starship is touching down at the Kaas City cargo port near the cantina, delivering a vitally important prisoner to me. You will meet Commander Lanklyn there and make sure he and his men successfully offload this prisoner,” Baras commanded.

“If you’re sending me, you must be expecting trouble.”

“We must always assume that we are being plotted against,” Baras explained. “Especially when stakes are high. This importance of this prisoner cannot be overstated. Got to the cargo port now and stay sharp. You are dismissed.”

 

The cargo port in question was a private hangar for discreet deliveries to high ranking Lords of the Sith. The Sith wouldn’t want to risk anything happening to their precious cargo, so the hangar was only a brief trip away from the Citadel.

Once inside the hangar, she saw a few Imperial officials standing around a small freighter shuttle.

“All right, men. Let’s hurry up and get this hunk of carbonite to its owner,” Lanklyn barked. Arierra and Vette were practically standing side by side and none of them had even noticed them enter.

“Hey, Captain Oblivious! Boo!” Vette said.

“Oh, I…didn’t see you enter. Lord Baras didn’t need to send a welcoming party,” Lanklyn said nervously.

“You’re lucky I’m not an enemy, or you’d all be dead,” Arierra said flatly.

“Forgive me, my Lord. But this is the capital world of the Empire. My men and I have performed much more dangerous duties for Lord Baras. This prisoner is frozen in carbonite so he’s not a flight risk, and this is friendly territory. Surely we’re safe here.”

Arierra scowled. “There is no such thing as friendly territory.” She was finding this to be truer the longer she spent among the Sith.

“No offense my Lord. That brand of paranoia may work for Lord Baras, but I don’t subscribe to it.”

“Obviously, Lord Baras feels otherwise,” Arierra said. “Which one of your men takes over after I kill you?”

“Please, my Lord, there’s no need for talk like that. I heed your point. Let’s get this oversized block of ice to your master.” Arierra stood still as a statue as she watched the men lower the carbonite block down onto the hover-pallet. She felt another presence enter the room and turned slowly to be greeted by a mob of rowdy looking thugs.

“Not so fast! My master ordered that block of ice. So, step away from the carbonite man and nobody ends up in a grave,” one of the men demanded, holding up a blaster.

“This is a private party,” Arierra said.

“Then consider it crashed,” the thug shot back. “I’m here to relive you of your burden. Whether that includes your own lives, well…that’s up to you.” This guy seemed exceptionally brave. Arierra’s eyes darted to the door once again as more thugs poured into the hanger, this time led by a monstrous blob of a creature.

“Lookie lookie! If it ain’t Slestack! Your master be wanting froze man too? Too bad for you. It mine!”

“You two know each other?” Arierra said, raising her eyebrow in curiosity. Slestack sighed.

“To know TuMarr is to hate TuMarr…”

“That go true for you too Slestack! If you don’t flee this be like killing two stone with one bird!” TuMarr growled. Arierra could feel the fear slowly building in the men behind her.

“I’m such a fool. I’ll never doubt Lord Baras again,” Lanklyn muttered. “What do we do?” he asked, looking to Arierra. Arierra took a good look at Slestack and TuMarr and their lackies.

“These gents look reasonable. We’ll reason with them.”

“TuMarr and his mates can’t even spell ‘reasonable’,” Slestack said.

“All me gotta be able to spell is kill! K-Y-Y-Y-L!” TuMarr yelled.

“You can spell it, now prove you can do it,” Arierra said, fighting through a laugh.

“Yeah I prove it! Boys, first we beat Slestack then do job!” TuMarr ordered.

“On their own, TuMarr and his lackies wouldn’t be much of a fight…but in a three-way battle…” He looked over to TuMarr and seemed to contemplate something. “I know you’re Sith, stranger, but I think your bravado is ill-advised.” TuMarr seemed to get what Slestack as hinting at.

“Me got idea Slestack! How about we play wishbone with the talker? Bigger half get spoils!”

“A truce then.” Slestack turned to Arierra with a smug smile. “You stood a chance against one set of us, Sith, but even a master Force user can’t beat these odds.”

Arierra sighed.

Can’t anything go smoothly? I kind of like these guys. I don’t want to have to kill them all.

“Enough of this!” Arierra said. “I’m going to kill and eat you all!”

“Eat me!?” TuMarr asked, his eyes wide. “Me hear right? This Sith say she eat me?”

“Yes, I heard that as well,” Slestack said. “Sith, do you really mean to eat us if you kill us?”

“Until I'm bloated! Then I’ll pick my teeth with your bones. Don’t you eat what you kill?” Arierra said, baring her teeth in a crazed grin. “So either you leave, or I eat an early lunch.”

“I don’t get paid enough to fight a monster. I’m getting out of here!” Slestack said.

“Me not want to be breakfast either. We leave, boys!”

“Wise move,” Arierra said.

“It’s a day of firsts then. A merciful Sith and TuMarr being called wise.”

“That true. What it mean, wise?” TuMarr asked as they both headed out the door.

“I’ll explain it to you later, brute...”

Arierra turned around to see Commander Lanklyn sigh, as if he’d been holding his breath the entire time.

“Well done, my Lord. I can’t believe they bought a bluff like that. They really thought you’d eat them!”

“That was no bluff,” Arierra said, grinning widely the Commander.

“I…um…I don’t…” The Commander was sweating.

Arierra threw her head back and started cackling uncontrollable. She hadn’t laughed this hard since she was a little girl. Every time she thought she was about to calm down, a new wave hit her, and she laughed even harder. Her face was hot, and she was starting to have trouble breathing.

“I’m…” she started to say, as her laughter finally died down enough for her to get words out. “I’m just kidding Lanklyn. I’m no cannibal. Ah man, the look on your face!”

“My men and I…better be getting this cargo to Darth Baras. Thanks for your…help,” Lanklyn murmured, still not quite sure if Arierra was serious or not.

Walking out of the cargo port, Vette giggled.

“Okay, for a second there even I thought you were serious. But that was funny. I’m glad we didn’t have to kill them.”

“You have to be convincing if you want to play spy,” Arierra explained. She looked far off into the distance. “Sometimes it scares me how easily it is to slip into different personas. I’ve played so many different roles in my Intelligence career. Even now, serving some Sith Lord…sometimes I’m not sure I’m able to figure out where the act ends and where the real me begins.”

Vette looked to the ground, unable to figure out what to say to this sudden shift in mood.

“Oh,” Arierra said quietly. “Sorry, Vette. I didn’t mean to get all existential on you. Let’s just get back to Baras.”

 

The mood had only soured even further when they stepped inside Baras’ office again. He was facing the carbonite man, hands behind his back, studying it closely, as if simply staring it down could break open its secrets.

“Lanklyn informed me of the ambush at the cargo port. Apparently, there are more eyes on us than I thought. I have felt a disturbance in the Force. It leaves doom imprinted on my dreams—a grave and mysterious threat that could bring down my entire power base. This frozen man is a top Republic agent, captured while investigating my most deeply embedded spy on Nar Shadaa—one of my “Invisibles.” The Force grants me a vision of doom, and immediately my most untraceable spy who has left no footprints, no trail, is almost exposed?”

“Instead of whining, how about you do something about it?” Arierra suggested.

“Oh, I’ll do something about it,” Baras said, with deranged glee in his words. “One of the things I do best—torture. I must learn what tipped off the Republic agent. He is the key to uncovering the nature of this threat. Now, while I thaw out the prisoner and painfully siphon every morsel of information I can from him, I have some concerns that require your special talents.”

“No rest for the wicked I guess,” Vette murmured.

“Go to the Imperial post in the jungles outside the city. Commander Pritch is stationed there. He has a seek-and-destroy task for you.”

“It’ll be done before you know it,” Arierra said with a short bow.

“I must tend to the torturing of this miserable Republic agent.” He said it as if it were just another chore around the house. “Waste no time. I have more for you to do once this is complete. Dismissed.”

 

The trip through the jungles took a while, having to travel most of it on foot through barely noticeable paths full of overgrown plant life. The Imperials cut down the plants every day, only for it to grow back more aggressively.

Even the plants on this planet are as aggressive as the Sith.

Eventually the plants gave way to a clearing with a large, unfinished stone statue rising up from the canopy. She found a few Imperial soldiers chatting with an officer. The soldiers parted and stood upright, saluting Arierra as she approached.

“Commander Pritch, at your service, my Lord. Lord Baras informed me you’d be paying us a visit. I’m prepared to offer full assistance.”

“Aren’t you a good little soldier?” Arierra said with a smile.

“Lord Baras has always found me so, Lord. Permit me to update you on the situation here. There’s been much unrest in these parts recently, capped off by a violent slave revolt that has the surrounding jungles overrun with armed slaves.”

Arierra crossed her arms and raised one eyebrow, a talent she was particularly proud of. “Then they’re not slaves anymore, are they?”

“I stand corrected, my Lord. Former slaves.” Pritch leaned in forward and whispered. “What no one knows is that Lord Baras orchestrated the insurgence to disrupt one of his rivals, and he wants his involvement kept secret. Now the slave captains who led the revolt are threatening to expose Baras’ involvement unless they receive more potent weapons. Lord Baras wants you to kill enough of the blackmailing slave captains to make the others lose their resolve.”

“Are there any other options, Commander? Violence is not always the answer.”

“Well, I suppose. Many of the slave captains are former criminals with ties to the underworld. In fact, some have been selling their fellow slaves to the black market. If their followers found out, they’d be furious. If I had proof they’re selling out their own people back into slavery, I could blackmail the captains to stop blackmailing Lord Baras.”

“Blackmailing blackmailers sounds poetic,” Arierra mused. She glanced over to Vette who was wearing a coy smile.

“I bet they keep records of their transactions. If you rifle through the captain’s lockers and find proof, I’ll do what I can to use it against them. Their base is at the foot of the unfinished colossus.”

Arierra confirmed her decision. “Better than the alternative. It’s worth a try.”

“However you wish to deal with it, my Lord. Good luck.”

Vette followed Arierra through the clearing, across a bridge that spanned a sheer ravine. Storm clouds roared overhead and a light drizzle started to fall. They moved to the edge of the jungle, taking cover from the rain amongst the large leaves. Soon enough they found themselves at a makeshift command base. They almost made it through without incident—until Vette tripped over a root and landed with a loud thud. A guard came running over, blasters at the ready. Arierra helped Vette up to her feet and put her finger in front of her lips.

“Let me try something first,” she whispered. Vette nodded.

The guard approached the edge of the jungle, and Arierra stepped forward into the clearing, waving her hand in an arc in front of her face.

“It was just the wind,” Arierra suggested. The guard squinted and looked around, right into her eyes, and then past her.

“Hmmm…just the wind,” the guard murmured as he lowered his blaster.

“Go inside and retrieve your financial records. Bring them back to me,” Arierra commanded.

“Sir, yes sir!” The guard turned and walked back into the base. Arierra and Vette waited a tense minute until the guard came back out, holding a portable drive. He offered it up in an open palm, and Arierra took it gently, trying her best to maintain the illusion that she wasn’t here.

“Go back inside and take a nap. You’ve earned it.”

“I’m pretty tired. It's been a long day. I’d better go take a nap,” the guard said through a yawn. Slowly he meandered back to the base. Arierra turned around to face Vette, who had a surprised look.

“Wow, I can’t believe that actually worked. Hey…out of curiosity, you’ve never, you know…used that on me, have you?”

Arierra gave her a reassuring smile. “Of course not, Vette. And even if I had tried, it wouldn’t work on you. Mind tricks can only fool the weak willed.”

They returned to Commander Pritch to report their success.

 

“My Lord, you’re back. Did you find sufficient proof?” he asked.

“Were you foolish enough to doubt me?” Arierra asked, handing him over the drive full of secrets.

“No! Of course not, my Lord!” Pritch stammered as he accepted the digital logbook. “Not once!” He cleared his throat and regained his composure. “Now I can threaten to expose the truth. If those captains don’t want to be torn limb from limb, they’ll stop blackmailing Lord Baras. I must say, my Lord, it’s been inspiring watching you work.”

“You’ve been very helpful, Commander,” Arierra said.

“Thank you Lord. I’m pleased to hear that. I’ll inform Lord Baras that the situation has been handled. You should return to his office at once. I’m sure he has more for you to do.”